Despite Geoffrey Rush’s breathtaking performances, he has yet to achieve leading man status. In The Tailor of Panama, John Boorman’s stylish and agile adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy thriller, Rush gives another thrilling performance in the title role, but top billing still goes to Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Rush is the real heart of this old-fashioned espionage thriller and he wears the title role well.
Directed by Boorman from a script penned by Le Carré himself with screenwriter Andrew Davies, The Tailor of Panama is a smart thriller with a sly wit that doesn’t shy away from delving into the unsavory politics of Panama, which form the film’s backdrop. “When they took out Noriega, they took out Ali Baba, but they left the 40 thieves,” one character says.
Rush plays Harry, a solicitous tailor to Panama’s elite. He’s a dedicated craftsman who prides himself on his work and his clients, which at one time included Manuel Noriega. Harry’s well-appointed shop is more like a gentleman’s club, with its posh leather chairs and rich woods. His customers know him as the proud heir to the Braithwaite name and tradition, a well-respected London tailoring concern.
Harry is a tailor not only professionally but metaphorically as well. It turns out he is his own creation. He learned his tailoring in prison, serving a sentence for burning down his uncle Bernie’s clothing shop so they could collect the insurance. When he was released, his uncle (a cameo by playwright Harold Pinter) sent him to start a new life in Panama, where he married the daughter of a canal engineer. When Harry’s past didn’t fit, he merely tailored it. And now he’s worn that altered past for so long he’s almost made himself believe it. Think of him as a hapless Walter Mitty sort of character.
Pierce Brosnan gets the juicy role of the unscrupulous British agent who crawls into Harry’s life and turns it inside out. Brosnan is no stranger to playing the suave, sophisticated spy. He’s done the Bond thing before, but his Andy Osnard is no Bond. He’s a scumbag, a despicable has-been who’s been exiled to “Last Chance Panama” after a snafu with a foreign minister’s mistress in Spain. He’s an arrogant, cocksure operator, a womanizing sexist who gets nastier by the minute. His laughable method for bedding women is: “As I see it there are two ways to go about this. We can go six months of sweating it out, saying why’d we wait so long or we can have a full-on affair now.” Amazingly enough, he manages to make it work. Chalk it up to his seductive good looks.
Andy’s erstwhile assignment is to find out what’s happening in Panama, that “Casablanca without heroes.” Noriega has been ousted and the Panama Canal is being operated by Panama again, but the country remains a hot bed of drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption. There aren’t many Brits in Panama who Andy can turn to for information, so he settles on “the tailor of Panama.” Certainly, Harry Pendel, who has outfitted Panama’s ruling class, knows something about someone. Andy swaggers into Harry’s shop, sandbagging him with his shameful past.
Harry, a man who just wants to be liked, does what he does best. He invents stories, casting his friends as heroes. He turns the drunken Mickie, a decent one-time revolutionary tired of corruption, into the front for the very active Silent Opposition. His bookkeeper, who bears the scars of Noriega’s “ding-bats,” becomes the movement’s spiritual leader. Andy and Harry begin playing an increasingly dangerous game with stakes much higher than either realizes. Harry makes things up and Andy pretends to believe him, passing “information” on to London and demanding increasingly outlandish sums for the opposition.
In one well-paced scene, a nervous Harry follows Andy into a cash-by-the-hour brothel. Panama, Harry announces, is making plans to sell the canal. As Harry catches glimpses of a porno film running on television, he gets ideas for his latest tale. They’re selling to the—yes that’s a Chinese hooker—the Chinese!
Harry keeps feeding Andy; and Andy, desperate to hang on to his own floundering career long enough to get a pension, keeps feeding the embassy. The film has a nice satirical edge that makes international politics seem like a joke and statesmen like buffoons. The head of British intelligence, taking a call in his shorts, is almost clownish. The satire is balanced with plenty of intrigue and a nice human drama, thanks to Rush. He makes the soft-hearted Harry a pitiable man who means well. His embellishments are motivated by a desire to help his family and friends. “I tell a thing the way it ought to be,” he says. But those tales suck him into a tangled web with international implications and potentially disastrous consequences. He can only watch in panic as events escalate and his life unravels. He’s created his own trap and he doesn’t know how to get out.
As Rush’s wife, Jamie Lee Curtis bounces around with that perky American panache you’ve seen ad nauseum on her cell phone commercials. When she picks up a cordless phone in one scene, I was waiting for her to launch into her pitch. She’s strictly a minor player who doesn’t bring much to the role of Rush’s wife. She plays the role the same way she played Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife in True Lies. Rush and Brosnan, on the other hand, are completely engrossing as the despicable cat and the ineffectual mouse in this very nimble thriller. It’s a fascinating look at of politics, deception and desperation.
The Tailor of Panama (R) HHH1/2 Directed by John Boorman. Starring Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan.