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Tailor of Panama, The Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

Image “The Tailor of Panama” isn’t new to home videos, but it is new to Blu-ray. On one hand the movie is a spy film, but on the other it’s a subtle comedy about serious subjects. The mix of the two together is about as low-key as an angel food cake leavened with glass shards. It looks all light and fluffy, but it has a tendency to bite back when the viewer least expects it.

The book was written by master thriller author John Le Carre, and he had a hand in producing the movie as well as writing the screenplay. John Boorman directed the film and his eye for detail turns every scene into a lavish production. It seemed like every setting was well-developed, as if it were a real place and not mere a fictional office or tailor shop put together only as a conceit to the movie effort.

Geoffrey Rush stars as Harry Pendel, the tailor mentioned in the title. He brings an elegance and simplicity to the role that is disarming and enchanting. During the opening credits, he lays out a suit design on material with a tailor’s tools and chalk, and he looks as though he’s been doing it for years.

At the time he filmed “The Tailor of Panama’ and starred as fallen MI-6 Agent Andrew Osnard, Pierce Brosnan still helmed the James Bond 007 franchise. He had exactly one Bond film left in him, “Die Another Day.” In some ways it’s interesting to see Brosnan move from the world’s most suave super spy to a world-class espionage lout who’s interested only in what he can get for himself. But Brosnan pulls the role off with a flair that’s hard to beat. And he’s even more believable as Andy Osnard than he was as James Bond. Osnard got in trouble for having a sexual relationship with an ambassador’s daughter. As a result, he’s been sent to Panama, presumably to sit out the rest of his career. However, Osnard proves himself to be a master manipulator. The Panama Canal was just recently (in the movie) turned back over to Panamanian control after being watched over by the US military. Britain fears that someone might step into the power void and try to suck up control of the gateway from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Of course, at the time a lot of the world was concerned with that.

When Osnard reaches Panama, he hits the ground running. After looking over the list of British citizens living in Panama, he picks a name, Harry Pendel. Pendel is a tailor, one of the men in the city that every wealthy and politically motivated male will go to. Osnard figures that if he wants to know information about the city and country, all he has to do is chat up Pendel. And Osnard is prepared to force a relationship on Pendel because he knows Pendel’s secrets.

Pendel is a man with problems, though. During the sequence we meet him in, we see how much of a family man he really. But we also get to see the financial squeeze he’s in. He’s bought a farm and it’s failing to generate income. Not only that, it’s bleeding him dry financially. If Pendel doesn’t do something soon, the bank is going to seize his farm and his house for non-payment.

Back at his offices, Pendel meets with Osnard, who talks to him enough to let him know he’s aware of all his problems. As it turns out, Pendel already has an agenda of his own. Osnard wastes no time in blackmailing Pendel into taking his money and starting to listen to his clients.

With money in hand to solve one set of problems, Pendel begins concocting a scheme that will net him every penny he can get. Of course, those schemes are going to net him a whole new series of problems as well. Lying comes easy to him. After all, that was how Pendel got his start. His uncle hired him to burn down his warehouse. Pendel did, but he didn’t get far. The police caught him and the courts locked him up. After he was imprisoned, he served his time, learned to be a tailor, and then went back out into the world with his new skill. His uncle gave him enough money to flee to Panama and start up a business there.

Pendel’s wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis in a peek-a-boo sexy role that she’s a serious vamp in) doesn’t know anything of her husband’s real background. She works in the office overseeing the canal and is an American. The thing that shakes Pendel the most is when Osnard threatens to tell his wife about his time spent in prison. Family is everything to Pendel.

But Panama really isn’t worth being spied on at the time. There are no world-shaking plots going on. Of course there are the drug kingpins, arms dealers, and smugglers, but there always have been those and there always will be.

With all the pressure he gets from Osnard, though, Pendel begins making up lies and concocting wild stories. One of the stories Pendel tells is about his friend, Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson), leading a rebel force called the Silent Opposition.

Pendel also has an infatuation with his office aide, Marta (Leonor Varela). One side of her face was tragically scarred when Noriega was in power. She watches over Pendel because she likes him, and the tailor has a deep respect and affection for her. She was also part of the friendship with Mickie. The viewer gets to glimpse into their past, but doesn’t really get enough information about what brought them all together.

The lies Pendel tells Osnard are great. Viewers get to watch as the Silent Opposition takes shape. All of this is with Osnard’s support and willing compliance. The funny bits as Pendel talks to his uncle are good, but they really jar the viewer with the way they’re shoved into the scenes. There’s no warning and the brief chats don’t follow a pattern, so seeing the uncle there disturbs the story flow somewhat.

Brosnan wields his role with grim authority. Viewers will be torn between his grim efficiency, his sexual conquest of Franchetta (Catherine McCormack), and his self-centered nature as he remains – almost like Bond – unflappable throughout. He delivers an astonishingly compelling performance as the rogue British spy out for himself. He’s a complete conman and opportunist, but he goes after his goals with 007 savagery.

However, Brosnan delivers some lines with panache that he could never pull off as Bond. When he’s asked whether he dresses to the right or the left regarding his manhood, he replies that he doesn’t have a set course because it bobs around like a windsock. 007 could never pull that off. Later, when they’re hanging out with the prostitutes, talking while seated on a bed with Magic Fingers that vibrates so much they look like cowboys out riding the range at a hard gallop, Brosnan actually acts like he’s having the time of his life watching pornographic films.

Geoffrey Rush easily steals the show as Pendel, though. The trouble he gets himself into by simply trying to help his friends and himself drives the film forward. The stakes build because Pendel is so desperate to please everyone, his wife, Osnard, his friends, and the bank, that he can’t stop what he’s doing. One of the best moments in the film is when he finally can’t take the pressure anymore. His friends make him the butt of their jokes because he is so good-natured about everything. Even Mickie seems to turn on him, asking him why he can’t make a suit like Armani.

The special features on the disc are slim, but the interviews with Brosnan and Rush are worth it. Boorman’s commentary throughout the film also offers a lot of insight about that particular movie as well as film-making.

“The Tailor of Panama” isn’t a traditional spy movie, but it has a lot of the same moves and beats. The stakes mount. The pressure on the key players reaches staggering proportions. The action that’s taken (ultimately the American air strike on the harbor) reaches dangerous levels that affect the world. The only thing that’s missing is some of the action. The only shot fired at one of the principles of the movie is fired offstage, and the car chase at the end is incredibly sedate.

Still, for all of that, “The Tailor of Panama” grips the viewer with an intensity that nails him in place till the final countermoves in the film play out. The pressure never lets up, and there are enough twists and turns to keep the most jaded spy film fan attentive.

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