REVIEW: Boorman and Le Carre Team up for. . . Comedy? In "Tailor of Panama"
by Eddie Cockrell
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Eddie Cockrell reviewed "Tailor of Panama" in Berlin for indieWIRE. It is opening throughout the U.S. on Friday.]
In the wake of some unpleasantness involving gambling debts and a number of ambassadors' wives, British spy Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is reassigned from MI6 intelligence headquarters in London to relative obscurity in Panama City and warned to keep his nose clean and eyes open for the less controversial crimes of money laundering and drug trafficking. Once in the country, Osnard decides to receive maximum benefit for minimum work by tapping Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) for information, owner of the tailoring establishment Pendel & Braithwaite, figuring that if everybody in Panama with any power at all buys their suits from the craftsman -- and they appear to do so -- then he must have access to all the dirt.
He's half right: Harry's got lots of local bigshot friends, a charming American wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) who works at the canal administration offices, as well as two lovely children (Lola Boorman and the future big-screen Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe). But he's also a preening popinjay with more imagination than sense, and in fact learned his craft not at the knee of Savile Row's best, but in stir while taking the fall for his Uncle Benny (playwright Harold Pinter) on an insurance scam. (Benny's also the fictitious "Braithwaite" of the firm, complete with oversized oil painting prominent in the establishment.) Throughout John Boorman's latest "The Tailor of Panama," screening in Berlin's competition, Uncle Benny pops up from the afterlife as Harry's stern and somewhat talkative conscience.
In part to massage his own sense of importance (and in order to repay some poor investment choices of his own with the money Osnard pays for the "information"), Pendel slowly but surely fabricates a liberation movement called "The Silent Opposition." Supposedly masterminded by washed-up Noriega-era revolutionary Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson, star of "The General"), the group is supposedly working to influence Panamanian ministers to sell the canal to a foreign power, possibly the Chinese. As the completely fictitious rumors swirl around the capital city, the American military prepares to retake the canal zone and it's up to Osnard and even Harry himself to set things right.
Moviegoers expecting the Bond-ish adventure promised by the film's ad campaign will be in for a shock. Then again, moviegoers who are fond of Brosnan, but as something other than 007, will be delighted with the comedic choices made by the novel's author, John Le Carré. The author, who answers the question of precisely what a spy novelist writes about when there is no more Cold War, also serves as executive producer of the film; at the Berlin press conference he publicly pronounced himself happier with this treatment of his novel than with any since "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."
It's easy to see why. More of a charming rake than an action hero, Andy Osnard presented Brosnan with the challenge of broadening the comedy inherent in his work as Bond without exhibiting the slightest hint of desperation. This he does via sheer charm, some calibrated mugging and a comic timing that's a pleasant surprise. As the boorish but essentially sweet-natured Harry, Rush once again inhabits a garrulous character fully without distancing him from an audience. Curtis is typically craftsmanlike in a role not particularly amplified from the book, while Gleeson is fine as the tragic Mickie, Catherine McCormack is good as one of Osnard's embassy colleagues and Dylan Baker pops up in the late reels as a bromide-spouting American military officer.
Working for the third time with ace cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, director John Boorman seems completely in tune with the script by Le Carré and Andrew Davies, which itself coaxes far more laughs out of the material than were apparent in the novel itself. Against some very long odds, Boorman manages to sustain a unique comic tone throughout, seamless integrating sharp location work with interiors shot at Ireland's Ardmore Studios (technically, the film is an American-Irish co-production). Still, rumors persisted at the festival that the studio wasn't happy with the movie and its stateside release would be limited after certain American advance screenings had less-than-encouraging results.
Of course, Boorman's no stranger to controversy: a career that includes "Point Blank," "Deliverance," "Excalibur," "The Emerald Forest," "Hope and Glory" and "The General" also punctuates those critical and/or commercial triumphs with rather less successful movies like "Zardoz," "Leo the Last," "Exorcist II: The Heretic," "Where the Heart Is" and "Beyond Rangoon" -- projects which, while clearly close to his heart, have run him afoul of many a studio structure. Not to say that the latter list is comprised of bad movies, far from it.
For Boorman's peculiar and special gift is that of film visionary, a restless and probing filmmaker who constantly presses for some elevated sense of place and/or awareness in all of his projects. Think of Patricia Arquette's almost somnambulistic line readings in "Beyond Rangoon" (wildly misinterpreted at the time but essential to the film's unsettling message) or the sense of tattered dread and societal apocalypse that permeates "Leo the Last" and its unofficial sequel, "Where the Heart Is." Think of the yearning for honor felt by Sean Connery (the subject of an in-joke early in "Panama") in "Zardoz," or the palpably exotic locales and the ethnic and/or cultural tensions within them captured by Boorman in virtually every feature he's ever made (particularly the backwoods Georgia of "Deliverance," which features a career-best turn by Burt Reynolds). Finally, add a dash of the spirit world and its often unsettling closeness to reality -- issues with which Boorman has been exploring throughout his career (note to aspiring filmmakers: Boorman's annual film journal "Projections" is essential reading for anyone with a fierce love of and/or pecuniary interest in the business).
Now apply those traits to "The Tailor of Panama." Nothing less than a spoof of that sense of honor and duty, it also offers fleeting meditations on the canal's disruption of Panama's indigenous culture as well as a satire of power structures from Central America to Washington to London. Uncle Benny provides Boorman with the door to the spirit world, while the eccentric pacing of the funny bits brings the director full circle (catch a showing of his rarely-screened debut feature, the Beatlesque Dave Clarke Five romp "Catch Us If You Can" -- if you can).
Perhaps the best way to approach "The Tailor of Panama" is to be mindful of two other political comedies with which it shares, however tangentially, subject and tone. Both "Our Man in Havana," from the Graham Greene novel, and Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog," have the same finely-honed sense of ripped-from-the-headlines absurdity, and each in their day captured an audience in tune with the satire. Would that John Boorman and "The Tailor of Panama" might also nab the brave and appreciative audience it deserves.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering his 20th consecutive Berlin International Film Festival, this year for Variety, nitrateonline.com and indieWIRE.]