"The Tailor of Panama" is a different kind of spy movie. Despite the
presence of Pierce Brosnan, there is nary a hint of James Bond flash
here. Instead of big action scenes, leering super villains and
empty-headed femme fatales, we get interesting characters and an
intriguing situation. Based on the novel by John le Carré, who also
co-wrote the screenplay, the film offers viewers something rarely seen
in theaters this time of year: a solid, well-told story.
Brosnan plays Andy Osnard, a British operative walking on thin ice. His
British superiors ship him off to Panama, making sure he understands
that he had better not screw up the placement. Osnard arrives in the
tropics virtually oozing contempt for his new co-workers and his new
home base. When shown the Bridge of the Americas by a person marveling
over the fact that, since the creation of the Panama Canal, the
structure is the sole connection between North and South America, he
barely keeps from yawning. Brosnan clearly relishes the chance to be the
antithesis of 007, investing the suave spy with a distinct reptilian
quality coupled with an air of indifference that irks his fellows to no
Searching for a way to get information on the government, Osnard sets
his sights on Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), an unctuous tailor serving
the Panamanian elite. Harry claims to be a transplant from Britain's
renowned Saville Row, but Osnard knows his secret: The tailor is an
ex-con who served five years in prison after torching his uncle's shop
in an insurance scam. He also knows that Harry is up to his ears in
debt, having spent a fortune on an unsuccessful farm.
Osnard offers Harry a way out. He will pay for information Harry has
gathered from his upscale clientele. Eager to comply, Harry offers what
he knows, then starts concocting tidbits to keep the money flowing.
Before long, he is forced to spy on his loving wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee
Curtis), an aide to the Canal director.
Harry's little lies build, eventually taking on a life of their own.
Osnard turns in reports about the "silent opposition," a group
threatening to upset the balance of control over the canal. The bogus
revelation proves explosive, leading to meetings in Washington D.C. over
how to best protect the vital waterway. Meanwhile, Osnard wallows in his
newfound status, enjoying the best the city has to offer and wooing an
attractive co-worker. And Harry grows ever more fretful, fearing the
consequences if his clients, not to mention his wife, learn about his
Geoffrey Rush is wonderful as Harry, fawning over his customers by day
and savoring his rich family life in the evenings, all while playing
secret agent in the off hours with his new benefactor. Rush makes Harry
a credible figure, presenting the various levels of the character so
effectively that he remains sympathetic despite his duplicity. After
gaining fame playing larger than life characters, Rush flips everything
around for this role, using his energy to depict the quiet desperation
of a man slowly realizing that the solution to his troubles may be worse
than the original problems.
Although she gets far too little screen time, Jamie Lee Curtis imbues
Louisa with a depth greater than the screenplay provides her. Of the
central characters, she is the only one that exhibits maturity and
genuine self-confidence. Curtis is one of my favorite female actors;
whiplash smart, sultry and charismatic, she deserves more than
Speaking of supporting characters, there are some great ones here.
Harold Pinter is amusing as Harry's Uncle Benny, who pops up throughout
the story in a number of creative ways. Also shoring up the proceedings
is Jon Polito as a corrupt banker and Dylan Baker, who is a riot as a
United States general straight out of the Dr. Strangelove school of
But the most important secondary performers are Leonor Varela and
Brendan Gleeson, both outstanding as two wounded activists. Their
presence adds weight to the story, reminding us that beyond the charades
of the leading men, there are real people that have suffered greatly
over the politics connected to the Canal. Director John Boorman adds
additional verisimilitude by shooting the film on location. Instead of
using Panama City merely as a colorful backdrop, he adroitly weaves in
footage of all aspects of life there. The metropolis, described by one
character as "Casablanca without heroes" pulsates with life, underling
the folly of the two foreigners playing dangerous games that could have
a disastrous impact on a great many people. "The Tailor of Panama"
succeeds because the principals behind it were bright enough to make it
more than a simple entertainment.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott