“Are we copper-bottomed?”
Five years after John Le Carré’s best-selling novel “The Tailor of Panama” first appeared, a film adaptation produced and directed by veteran filmmaker John Boorman was released earlier this year by Columbia. Appearing theatrically at the end of March, the film tended to get somewhat lost in that filmic no-man’s-land just before the initial onslaught of late spring and early summer releases. Fortunately for those of us that planned to see the film, but just didn’t get around to it, Columbia has just recently released a very nice DVD Special Edition.
Harry Pendel is an ex-con who has since become a tailor to the rich and ruling elite of Panama. He lives the good life there with his wife Louisa (who knows nothing of Harry’s past) and their two children. Meanwhile, British spy Andy Osnard has been assigned to Panama by MI-6 — a last chance after a series of previous foul-ups. Osnard, who is a smooth and ruthless operator, entices Harry to eavesdrop on the many important people he makes suits for. Harry, however, has an imagination and a talent for story-telling and he makes up an elaborate story about a Panamanian plan to sell control of the Panama Canal to a foreign country and the existence of a silent resistance group in the country. Osnard relays the information to MI-6 plus the need for $15 million to finance the latter. This precipitates a chain of events that soon threatens to engulf Osnard, Harry and Louisa.
John Le Carré’s books have generally fared quite well in their translations to the screen. The Russia House (1990), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965), not to mention the made-for-television series Smiley’s People (1982) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980), were all above-average efforts. Adding to that record, we now have The Tailor of Panama. Despite some initial misgivings about the conclusion, I must say that it’s a pleasure to watch an intelligent, well-acted film (with a touch of black humour) that isn’t paced and scored for an audience composed of only attention-span-challenged high-school-goers. This is a picture of some maturity. It’s got a story line that requires you to pay attention and think. It’s got action, but nothing prolonged and unbelievable. It’s got sex, but it’s more suggestive than graphic, using silhouettes to effect in one sequence. Finally, it’s got an ending that’s somewhat unexpected, thus providing a good topic of discussion.
As spy films go, this is quite an unconventional take on the genre. Nearly everything is turned on its ear. We have Britain’s man in Panama who brings no glory to his homeland; we have a Panamanian revolutionary who acts like a drunk, but really turns out to be…a drunk; a British Ambassador who’s quite amenable to being on the take; and the British and American intelligence agencies which both come off looking either self-serving or inept (although that’s probably not what we want to hear in these times). It’s refreshingly different.
Refreshing too is the setting. I’m not sure if it’s true that The Tailor of Panama is the first major film ever shot in Panama (as claimed elsewhere on the disc), but it’s sure nice to see a spy film set somewhere other than in the usual European major-city suspects. Director John Boorman apparently insisted on shooting in Panama rather than in some Latin American substitute and received extraordinary cooperation from Panamanian officials, even getting to film inside the presidential palace. The shots of the canal, the towers of the capital city, and the street scenes and brothels add considerable atmosphere and authenticity to the story. Some interiors were shot on sets in Ireland.
The Tailor of Panama treats us to a cast of fine actors including Jamie Lee Curtis as Louisa (a role somewhat reminiscent of her work in True Lies, but more fully rounded), Brendan Gleeson and Leonor Varela as two Panamanian revolutionaries, David Hayman as a smarmy MI-6 superior, and the two principal leads — Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush.
No one is going to pretend that Pierce Brosnan is in the leading echelon of film actors, but he has a screen presence and style that have always enabled him to carry action-type pictures successfully. In recent years, however, one must admit that at least he’s trying to expand the nature of his roles. His work in The Thomas Crown Affair and in Grey Owl (both 1999) was perhaps the best thing in both of those otherwise unsuccessful films, certainly showing that he was capable of more than James Bond. As Andy Osnard in The Tailor of Panama, he’s done his best work yet (despite a few sequences when his character indulges in some rather false-sounding laughter). Osnard’s a suave yet vulgar, ruthless, and self-serving individual who sees his posting to Panama as a last chance — not necessarily to redeem himself for past misdeeds, but more to feather his nest to ensure a comfortable retirement. Yet despite his association with the Bond character, Brosnan is never anything but completely convincing as this different type of spy. He manages a certain crooked glint in the eye and an intonation to the voice that makes one distrust Osnard instinctively. Of course, distrust sometimes isn’t sufficient to counter Osnard’s persuasive charms, as we observe from the actions of the other principal characters in the film.
Facing off against Osnard, we have Harry Pendel played by Geoffrey Rush. Since his Academy Award turn in Shine (1996), Rush has had an interesting selection of roles in such films as Shakespeare in Love (1998), House on Haunted Hill (1999), and Quills (2000). In The Tailor of Panama, his Harry Pendel character is a con artist supreme. He’s managed to hide his shady past entirely from his wife and cultivated the entire ruling elite of Panama by pretending to be a tailor with a Savile Row pedigree. His answer to Andy Osnard’s demand for cooperation is another con job — that there is a Panamanian plan to sell control of the Canal to foreign interests. We first saw Rush’s ability with this sort of character in his theatre manager turn in Shakespeare in Love, another role where he had to speak persuasively, and sometimes dishonestly, to save his skin. He manages an earnest tone to his voice with just a touch of querulousness that suggests he’d be affronted that anyone could even think that he might not be telling the truth.
This is the second disc in a row from Columbia that I’ve reviewed (the other was 13 Ghosts) that suggests that the quality of its transfers may be getting back on track. The results here aren’t perfect, but on the whole, this is a sharp and clean image with only a few instances of softness and minor edge enhancement to mar the total effect. Colours appear spot on and shadow detail is quite good. The transfer is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen version (2.35:1) utilizing 28 scene selections.
Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo surround tracks are provided in English. (There’s also a French 2.0 stereo surround one.) Annoyingly, the disc defaults to the 2.0 English track. Anyway, the 5.1 track provides a very nice audio experience for the film. The pleasing music score sounds rich and dialogue is generally clear. I did have to boost the volume during a couple of conversations, however. Due to the dialogue-driven nature of the film, there is little use of the surrounds. English and French subtitling is included as is closed captioning.
Turning to the supplementary material, we begin with an audio commentary by director John Boorman. Boorman has a very pleasant speaking voice, somewhat folksy, and he really makes you feel like you’re listening to a comfortable fireside chat. His comments provide an interesting mix of information on the structuring of the film, his feelings about the actors, the mechanics of individual scenes, and location issues. At the end of his talk, he mentions an alternate ending. This is included as a supplement on the disc In fact, it was the ending that was first shot, but Boorman decided that it didn’t ring true in terms of the characterizations that had been built up, so the ending that you see in the film replaced it. There is also a featurette almost 25 minutes long that presents a conversation with Brosnan and Rush. Despite some annoying camera work that seems to switch between negative and positive images, this is quite an entertaining piece. Both actors speak quite forthrightly about their work on the film, their preparation, and their interaction. Rush comes across as the more perceptive of the two. Rounding out the disc are filmographies for the director and the main actors, and theatrical trailers for The Tailor of Panama and Les Miserables, an earlier Columbia release with Geoffrey Rush. Two pages of production notes are included on the disc’s insert pamphlet.
!!Spoiler Alert!! My comments here are not meant to be a criticism of the film, but more a warning about the ending for some may feel some discontent with it. I must confess to some initial misgivings about the ending myself. Seeing Osnard profit from his self-serving and underhanded efforts was somewhat unexpected. Then, being faced with the implication that Harry’s life is going to go on smoothly, after all the trouble that his lies caused including at least one death — well, it just seemed a little much to swallow. There is an alternate ending in which Osnard pays for his sins, but that result means that Harry has two deaths on his hands and for life to proceed smoothly then seems even harder to accept. I’ve had a few days to think about the two endings now, and the more I do, the better I like the choice that Boorman made for the film’s final version. I suspect most viewers will feel the same.
In a year that has suffered from a lack of really good films, it’s nice to report on an exception. The Tailor of Panama is an intelligent, well written and acted film that goes against the conventions of its genre. It merits your attention. Columbia has done a very good job on its DVD release with a generally fine transfer and a nice mix of supplements. Highly recommended.