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TAILOR OF PANAMA, THE (director/writer: John Boorman; screenwriters: John le Carré/Andrew Davies/based on the book by Mr. le Carré; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Ron Davis; cast: Pierce Brosnan (Andy Osnard), Geoffrey Rush (Harry Pendel), Jamie Lee Curtis (Louisa Pendel), Leonor Varela (Marta), Brendan Gleeson (Mickie Abraxas), Harold Pinter (Uncle Benny), Catherine McCormack (Francesca), Leonor Varela (Marta), Lola Boorman (Sarah, Harry’s daughter), Daniel Radcliffe (Mark, Harry’s son-he will be the actor to play Harry Potter), Martin Ferrero (Teddy), John Fortune (Ambassador Maltby), David Hayman (Luxmore), Jon Polito (Ramon), Dylan Baker (American General), Mark Margolis (Rafi Domingo); Runtime: 120; Columbia Pictures; 2001-USA/Ireland)
“It’s more like Harry’s handmade suits–specially made for the person of taste.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An amusing and sophisticated espionage thriller, only slightly flawed by some of its contrivances. This British spy spoof is about a colorful tailor who gets off on being respected by the prominent people he surrounds himself with. The self-exiled tailor lives in Panama by the decree of his Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter). He’s a fantastic storyteller with a hidden shady past. He reluctantly becomes a spy for an unscrupulous British agent, Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), who is coming off a sex scandal in his last botched assignment. Andy’s a disgraced MI-6 agent exiled to Panama City to cool his heels. But Andy is a go-getter, a schemer and an opportunist without scruples. He’s one of those handsome womanizer types (he’s not exactly James Bond in this role, but instead plays a parody of that role), who only looks out for himself and is quite adept at leaving others in the lurch after seducing them. The drug trafficking and gun-running climate of Panama will prove to be a place just right for him.

Arriving in Panama the first thing Andy does is look up the fidgety tailor Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a half-Jewish cockney ex-convict who reinvented himself as the Saville Row tailor. Harry made up a tale that he was partners with the WASP Brathwaite and that he learned the craft in prison, and after serving time his beloved Uncle Benny set him up in business with the condition he must be far away from him. Here Harry sells old-fashioned custom-made suits at steep prices, working out of a shop decorated with leather club chairs where he serves class — Scotch is served to his pampered wealthy clientele. Harry always speaks with utter praise for his late partner Brathwaite, even though Brathwaite never was his partner. The oil painting that hangs on Harry’s fitting-room wall is supposed to be a portrait of Brathwaite but is actually a portrait of Harry’s late Uncle Benny, an East End rag man, whose dreamlike face appears at troubled times to offer Harry advice on how to deal with his current affairs. Harry lives a bourgeois life in his suburban villa, driving his luxurious Land Rover and immensely enjoys being a doting father to his two kids and a loving husband to a wife he simply adores.

Andy knows all this and also that the tailor owes $50,000 on a farm he bought when he mortgaged his business and home, and now the loan is being called in by the bank. His American wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), the respected daughter of an engineer who worked on the canal, doesn’t know Harry’s dark secret from the past or how he has put their two children Sarah and Mark in financial danger because of his rash actions. But Harry has an offer from Andy he can’t refuse. If he sells Andy info about what’s going on in Panama the loan will be paid back by the Brits, as the Brits like the Americans are worried about the canal now that it has been handed back to Panama. They are worried that those in power shouldn’t sell this very valuable trade route to another country. And since the tailor’s wife is the high-powered executive assistant to the Canal director, Andy gets him to spy on her. Harry can’t resist this temptation to tell tall stories and soon he’s telling Andy what he wants to hear. Andy knows that he’s making this up, but pays him anyway because it fits in with the scheme he’s cooking up.

Geoffrey Rush is the timid man trapped in the post-Noriega Panamanian intrigues, and Pierce Brosnan is the seducer without morals. They play one another off in a most refreshingly joyous way, as for a while it is hard to tell who has the upper hand. Under John Boorman’s (Deliverance/Hope and Glory) competent direction, the film has air to breathe for its smart storytelling parody. It is based on the popular 1996 novel by John John le Carré who also was the screenwriter and the executive producer, making sure his work was translated onto the screen in a reasonable facsimile from the book. He said he was more than satisfied with the movie.

Chilean actress Leonor Varela in her role as Harry’s receptionist, whose one side of the face is scarred because of the beating given her by Noriega’s henchmen, gave a fine edgy performance in a supporting role. Noriega is the puppet state leader of Panama whom the CIA head man Bush put in power. When his criminal activities and dealings in drugs became too great for even, the then, President Bush, he was forcibly removed in an invasion. The country is now supposedly a democracy, but as Boorman wryly points out these are the same faces running the country who were with Noriega. Brendan Gleeson plays the wino, a one time rebel against Noriega, who is now too weak after spending some jail time to be anything but a broken down man. Harry’s tale to Andy is that he’s head of the ‘silent opposition.’ He says that this freedom-fighting organization, headed by Gleeson, is planning to take back control of the Panama Canal from the corrupt government. The joke is how readily the Americans buy into this unreliable info without thoroughly checking it out, and how this quickly turns into an international disagreement between Panama and the U.S.. Catherine McCormack is part of the British Embassy staff, who succumbs to Andy’s sexual charms.

This farce works out fairly well. The script is tight. The directing is impeccable, the acting finely tuned, and it sets a fine mood for a thinking man’s picture to develop amidst all the comedy. Boorman gets his digs in on what is going on down Panama way, now that Noriega is in jail. The dig I liked best was: When a local Panamanian is pointing to the city’s skyline, he asks — “You know what the poor call those?” The answer is: “Cocaine Towers.” This is not an ordinary commercial formula film made to fit a mass audience, but it’s more like Harry’s handmade suits–specially made for the person of taste.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”