The Tailor of Panama Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the upcoming Region 2 release of The Tailor of Panama. An excellent film from the reliable John Boorman with excellent performances from Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan. The DVD is very pleasing, with the emphasis based on quality rather than quantity of extras.

Unlike a number of other best-selling authors, John Le Carre has done pretty well out of screen adaptations. From Martin Ritt’s excellent The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Sidney Lumet’s wonderfully chilly The Deadly Affair to Fred Schepsi’s woefully underrated The Russia House, he seems to have escaped the usual Hollywood filleting. Admittedly, George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl was a mess, but even that had a superb Diane Keaton performance. Le Carre has struck lucky again with John Boorman’s intelligent and subtle version of The Tailor of Panama, one of the most underrated movies of the year so far.

The adaptation is generally faithful to the novel, making one change which is actually a vast improvement. In the book, the central character of Andy Osnard is in his mid twenties, but in the film he is played by Pierce Brosnan and aged to his mid forties. This makes for a much more interesting dynamic between him and the other main character, the tailor of Panama himself, Harry Pendel (Rush). It’s a pleasant surprise to see a film in which every character of importance is over 40. The plot, fairly convoluted but relatively straightforward by Le Carre standards, involves Osnard, a washed-up British MI6 agent, being sent to Panama to recruit Pendel, an unassuming Jewish tailor who has made a career catering for the sartorial needs of the great and the good of the Canal zone, along with the has-been and the bad. This being the time of the handover of the Panama Canal from the US to the Panamanian government, Osnard is hoping to find out what the government have planned for this vital trade artery and Pendel is ideally placed to become a spy for the spy. Unfortunately, the lack of genuine information – despite Pendel’s wife (Curtis) working for the Canal administrator – leads the tailor to indulge some of his wilder fantasies only to find that Osnard, unconcerned about their veracity, is happy to feed them as genuine information to his superiors.

This is something of a throwback to the “realistic” spy movies of the late sixties which tried to counter Bond glitz with a hefty dose of gloomy realism, which now tends to look just as modish as the more glamourous spy adventures. Like those, it is deeply cynical about the role of the spy in international politics, although unlike the more serious spying films it does have a bracing dose of black comedy to temper the cynical message. It also has rather more faith in human nature, although not a lot.

For the first half, The Tailor of Panama is a light hearted comedy thriller with lovely performances from Rush and Brosnan and a perfectly judged tone which lies somewhere between Casablanca and Salvador. Boorman and his DP, Philippe Rousselot who also shot Hope and Glory, create a spellbindingly atmospheric vision of Panama as a city of contrasts; between the rich and the poor, between (to borrow Graham Greene’s phrase) the committed and the uncommitted. It’s the sort of documentary visual work which can only be achieved by shooting on location, and Boorman managed to get an extraordinary amount of co-operation from the Panamanian authorities. Most of the interiors were shot at studios in Ireland, but some are filmed in the authentic locations including the Presidential mansion. This intoxicating setting is peopled with colourful characters – another facet which makes this seem more like Greene-land than Le Carre territory – including the faded revolutionary Mickie Abraxas (Gleeson, as good as always) and a deeply cynical British ambassador, played by the great John Fortune. Both Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan are on top form. Brosnan is particularly impressive, playing a complete and utter bastard with relish, and Rush overcomes a slightly hesitant start to create a character who is simultaneously infuriating and totally sympathetic. It’s also nice to see Jamie Lee Curtis again, doing a fine job with a difficult role.

The film is often very funny indeed, largely thanks to the crackling dialogue – the scene where Pendel devises his story with the help of a pulsating bed and an Asian porn movie is a delight – but what shines through is Boorman’s ability to transcend genre. Having redefined the gangster film in Point Blank, the rural adventure in Deliverance, the sword and sorcery romp in Excalibur and turned the horror film into spiritual odyssey in Exorcist II The Heretic, he gradually turns this comedy thriller into an examination of love and betrayal. The brief but gory flashbacks to the time of Noriega and the Dignity Battalions remind us of how recently Panama was under a brutal dictatorship, something which lends a poignant backdrop to the story. Osnard is a loose cannon, untrammelled by loyalties or codes and he happily uses his contacts at the British embassy without a thought for their welfare or security. Eventually he decides to come between Pendel and his wife, the one person for whom Pendel has nothing but decent and caring love, and attempts to break them apart for his own satisfaction and financial reward. Pendel on the other hand is nearly responsible for the deaths of the innocent in Panama simply because he can’t resist being an important man, perhaps to atone for his past as a criminal who burnt down his Uncle Benny’s warehouse for a cut of the insurance money. His basic decency is contrasted not only with Osnard but also with his appalling Uncle Benny (a lovely cameo from Harold Pinter) who pops up from time to time as a spectral visitor from the grave, counselling Pendel to be selfish and duplicitous. It’s Pendel’s love for his wife that makes this more than just another spy romp; like Boorman’s previous film The General, it can’t help but become an inquiry into why intelligent people do the stupid things they do. More than that, it is a serious and insightful examination of the strange ways of the human heart.

The Disc

This is an excellent release from Columbia, matching a good transfer with a nice array of supplements. I have certain reservations about the picture quality but none that make this any less recommended as a package.

The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 format. It’s generally a crisp and clean image with a high level of detail and good sharp definition. The colours are generally strong. My only reservation is that the night scenes and the darker interiors show a small amount of artefacting which is unnecessary. There is also a small amount of grain on show, although this is not a serious problem. Overall, a very satisfactory image but not the stunning showcase for Rousselot’s photography that it could have been.

The only soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 English. It’s not the most eventful surround track I’ve ever heard, but it is clear and atmospheric and does the job it is required to do. Since the film is so overwhelmingly dialogue based, this track is more than adequate. There is some spatial placing of dialogue but the surrounds are used most noticably in the music track and the busier street scenes in Panama. Not much use of the sub-woofer, although the planes at the end do rumble nicely.

There are not many extras, but for once they are all welcome and enhance the experience. This is a special edition where special refers to significance rather than quantity.

The audio commentary from John Boorman is one of the best tracks I have heard. His love of filmmaking, so evident in his films, is present here in spades. He talks, with a few pauses, throughout the entire film with lots of anecdotes about the actors and the setting and rarely just describes what’s happening on the screen. A model of its kind, I hope some other directors who shall be nameless have a listen to this and learn something about talking about their own work.

We also get a 30 minute interview with Brosnan and Rush which is also well above the usual quality of this sort of thing. They talk in some depth about their characters and the process of filming and they don’t descend into PR fluff. They are obviously proud of their work and loved the experience of working with Boorman. Rush is more locquacious than Brosnan, but the latter does make some interesting points about how playing Bond contrasts with playing Osnard.

The alternative ending on the disc is fascinating for how totally misconceived it is, since it belongs in a much more seriously po-faced and less cyncial film than this one. It’s valuable to have Boorman’s commentary here to explain why he changed it for the one which eventually ended the film.

Finally, there are four trailers – the theatrical trailer for Tailor Of Panama then strangely unconnected ones for Legends of the Fall, Finding Forrestor and Devil In A Blue Dress – and some brief filmographies. There are 28 chapter stops.

A very good film indeed has received a pleasing DVD release from Columbia, which doesn’t do any harm to their strong reputation in the R2 market. Definitely recommended.


Mike Sutton

Updated: Sep 30, 2001

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