The opposite of Bond
The Tailor of Panama
John Boorman’s film of John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama is a wickedly intelligent black comedy about the self-perpetuating art of espionage. Pierce Brosnan plays Andy Osnard, an amoral British intelligence agent whose sexual and financial indiscretions have caused him to be banished to Panama. His handlers intend the Panama beat as a punishment, but Osnard is determined to turn it into an opportunity.
He soon finds just the man he needs: Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a glad-handing Cockney tailor, formerly of London’s ritzy Saville Row—at least, that’s his story. In fact, Harry is an ex-con who spent a stretch in an English pen for arson (an insurance scam) before relocating to Panama with the cloth-cutting trade he learned in prison. Now married to a minor functionary at the U.S. Embassy (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harry moves comfortably among the movers and shakers of the tiny country, covering his financial problems (including a partnership in a failing coffee plantation) with a posh manner and a glib line of unctuous patter.
Osnard snares Harry’s services with a combination of bribery and blackmail. Tailors hear all kinds of secrets, he says; if Harry passes some along to Osnard, he can maintain his respectable cover and pick up a little cash on the side—maybe even get that plantation out of debt. Somehow, without the words actually being spoken, Harry understands that his “secrets” don’t even have to be true, as long as they “play” back home in London. Helpless to hold his rattling tongue, Harry soon concocts a sinister plot of government oppression and a “Silent Opposition.” To his desperate amazement, he learns that the wilder and more incredible the story, the more cash British intelligence will cough up to hear all about it. Meanwhile, Osnard uses Harry’s information to put himself back on the espionage map.
Brosnan must have rubbed his hands and cackled at the thought of playing an evil-twin mirror image of James Bond. And having the current Bond in the role of a slippery lizard like Osnard gives the film a nasty, delicious kick. In le Carré's telling (he is credited with the razor-sharp screenplay, along with Boorman and Andrew Davies), the suave seductions of the James Bond films have morphed into Osnard’s hostile ruttings with an embassy attache (Catherine McCormack), both of them humping through clenched teeth and out of sweaty tropical boredom.
Harry feels his life careening out of control, and he knows he’s taking his family and friends down with him—especially his devoted shop clerk Marta (Leonor Varela), a former student scarred inside and out by the goon squads of the deposed Manuel Noriega, and Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson), a drunken, washed-up journalist whom Harry has inflated into a noble crusader for Panamanian democracy. Harry has furtive, wild-eyed conversations with the “ghost” of his late Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter) in which he anguishes over his inability to stop (or save) himself. Uncle Benny’s appearances are an eerie echo of a similar device in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—the character even has the same name—in which the doomed Willy Loman is unable to heed the advice of his long-dead brother.
Boorman finds just the right approach to the material, a kind of headlong verbal slapstick. The film begins with sunbaked lassitude, then accelerates minute by minute as the noose relentlessly tightens on poor Harry, taking on the feverish rhythm of a nightmare from which Harry can’t awaken. Death, near-rape, invasion are thrust upon Harry and those around him, until the madness takes on a bizarre life of its own.
“Welcome to Panama," Harry says early on. "Casablanca without heroes." Harry is smug and knowing then, but the words will come back to haunt him. With the pot boiling over, bombs falling and helicopters swooping in, Harry will learn that not only are there no heroes, but the villains may well come out ahead. The ordinary people in the middle of it all will be lucky to end up somewhere near where they started.