I Spy 

Espionage unbound in The Tailor of Panama

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001

Robbed of the bleak Cold War espionage arena that was for decades his bread and butter, John Le Carre has kept his perch at the top of the best-seller lists with books like The Night Manager, The Secret Pilgrim and The Tailor of Panama, tales of a mad new world of global arms and drug dealing, of secret-service agencies stranded between plotlessness and paranoia, chafing at their newfound impotence. The shifting political landscape has propelled Le Carre into fresh narrative forms and territory exotic enough to make that wan organization man George Smiley -- immortalized by Alec Guinness in the BBC‘s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- wince.

Le Carre’s 1996 novel, The Tailor of Panama, certainly his funniest book (whose premise, the author freely admits, was inspired by Graham Greene‘s Our Man in Havana) and arguably his most scathing indictment of the Western powers’ gratuitous interventions in Latin America, is a ferociously satirical caper set in the lush rain forests and sleek nouveau-wealthy high-rises of post-Noriega Panama, in an indeterminate present hovering about the 1999 American pullout from the canal. The terrain is more James Bond than Smiley, which may be why John Boorman, in his likable but uncertain adaptation of The Tailor of Panama, cast Pierce Brosnan as Andrew Osnard, a slimey British spook with none of Smiley‘s dogged loyalty to his masters, who shows up in Panama with sacks full of unspent MI-5 cash and a vested interest in finding conspiracy under every rock. And who better to supply it than one Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a London-born Jewish tailor to the dubious stars of Panamanian politics and, unlike Osnard, a particularly appealing entry in Le Carre’s ongoing rogues‘ gallery of con artists, all variants on the author’s charming cad of a father. Pendel is an instinctive storyteller with the gift of fabricated gab and a past he‘d rather Osnard didn’t spill to his, the tailor‘s, excitable wife, Louisa (an amusingly neurotic Jamie Lee Curtis). For reasons that have much to do with his lifelong orphan’s need to make the world more vibrant than it is, Pendel handily obliges with rumors of secret plans to sell off the canal to the highest bidder, and of a nascent popular uprising against the new regime. All his life Harry has embroidered, only this time his fabulist extravaganzas hold profound consequences for those he loves, and for Osnard‘s insanely overzealous and under-occupied masters.

Le Carre’s spy thrillers, pleasurably slowed by his novelist‘s tendency to linger over his deeply compromised characters, play better on television than they do on film: Tinker, Tailor will live forever, but who remembers Fred Schepisi’s 1990 movie, The Russia House? It takes time to unfold the novel‘s Harry Pendel, as messy a scramble of high and low motives as you could hope to find outside of Dickens. He, not Osnard, is the colorful heart and soul of The Tailor of Panama, a man just begging to be played over the top. Which makes it all the more baffling that Rush, an actor who can hardly be said to have built his career on understatement, tamps Pendel down into a dull, sycophantic Uriah Heep, all too susceptible to Brosnan’s suave treachery.

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Boorman is a gloriously uneven filmmaker who, with the exception of his recent The General (whose star, Brendan Gleeson, has a thankless small role here as a fallen hero of the revolt against Noriega), has never really mastered character development. It‘s also possible that a wacky denunciation by Norman Rush (no relation) in The New York Times Book Review of Pendel as an anti-Semitic creation (I come from Jewish tailors on both sides, and I’m here to tell you Rush is wrong) imposed a crippling restraint not just on Boorman and Le Carre, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boorman and Andrew Davies and serves as executive producer, but also on their handlers in a Hollywood notoriously skittish about putting Jews of any stripe on the big screen. (Playwright Harold Pinter gives an equally tactful rendition of Harry‘s shyster Uncle Benny, returned from the dead to counsel him.)

Such circumspection, if that’s what it is, all but does the movie in. Unable to take onboard the novel‘s more literary ambitions, Boorman creams off an amiable thriller, punctuated by lovely scene-setting of Panama at its sultry and menacing hottest. And although Boorman has made several films with tropical settings, The Tailor of Panama -- like Beyond Rangoon, a film as warm of heart as it was heavy of foot -- lacks the burning intensity, both dramatically and existentially, of Boorman’s best work, in Point Blank, Deliverance and The General. Where the novel is a wonderful pottage of tones and strategies -- satiric, farcical and elegiac -- the movie is crudely jokey and, finally, a wimpy betrayal of its source. Le Carre‘s novel ends, unexpectedly but plausibly, in apocalypse; Boorman’s movie, presumably with the writer‘s consent, stutters to a facetiously jolly halt.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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