The Tailor of Panama

Directed by John Boorman
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Leonor Varela, Brendan Gleeson, Harold Pinter, Catherine McCormack, Dylan Baker.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language and some violence.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
April 10, 2001

After an extended break, I'm finally ready to review again. I saw The Tailor of Panama over a week ago at a matinee screening. For some reason, the average age of the audience was about, oh, 75. Take me out of there, and it goes even higher. I'm sure about half of them had personally dug the Panama Canal during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. My point is that here we have a film that is nearly selling out a large theatre at merely $5 (the senior matinee rate) a head. So, don't be fooled by its low box office take; just double it and then compare it to Spy Kids. As interesting as this anecdotal analysis is, I need to move on to the review.

Pierce Brosnan stars as British intelligence agent Andrew Osnard. Now, Osnard is no James Bond; he's more of a pathetic wannabe. When he has an affair with an ambassador's mistress, he doesn't enjoy a dry martini and call it a day. He faces a more realistic fate: a virtual exile to Panama to do some meaningless investigation. The British government is concerned that the new Panamanian Canal Authority is going to sell control of the Canal to foreign interests.

Osnard is supposed to get some information from Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), an ex-con who now runs a successful tailor business. Pendel has now settled down with his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), the daughter of an American canal engineer, and their two kids. Under the Noriega regime, however, he was associated with several rebellion leaders. That is, he made their suits. When Osnard comes offering money in exchange for information about any new uprising, Pendel gives him a fabricated story of a "silent opposition" just to pay off some debts. When Osnard reports his findings, the situation starts to lose control.

The Tailor of Panama, based on the novel by John le Carré, is a sort of cross between 007 and Dr. Strangelove. Strictly speaking, it's a satirical farce, but with spy stuff thrown in to mislead the audience. Watching the film is a remarkable experience. I started to notice that it was a comedy fairly early, and was the only person laughing through the first half. By the end, everybody was in on the joke, each scene generating a larger and larger response.

That's what makes it so difficult to rate this film. As a spy thriller, it's OK. There are some tense moments and a few exciting set pieces, though nothing as outrageous as a Bond stunt. As a comedy, however, it is brilliant. That's not what I expected from director John Boorman, who co-wrote the screenplay with le Carré and Andrew Davies. While Boorman has used humor as a counterpoint to drama in films like Deliverance and The General, none of his previous films were exactly laugh-riots.

Boorman went through a lot to get this film finished and released. He has really made a terrific film, and I hope that people of all ages eventually come out to see it.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Tailor of Panama (2001)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
The Tailor of Panama (2001) -- VHS
The Tailor of Panama (2001) -- DVD
The Tailor of Panama, a novel by John le Carré -- Paperback
The Tailor of Panama, a novel by John le Carré -- Audio Cassette (read by the author)
The Tailor of Panama: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan