The Tailor of Panama



US 2001
director : John Boorman
script : Boorman, Andrew Davies, John Le Carre (based on Le Carre’s novel)
cinematography : Philippe Rousselot
editing : Ron Davis
stars : Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis
109 minutes

John Huston’s Escape To Victory is traditionally (though somewhat harshly) referred to as the worst film ever made by a great director, but here’s a real stinker to give it a run for its money. What on earth has happened to John Boorman? Point Blank and Deliverance were a long time ago, but his most recent picture, The General, suggested he’d lost none of his old knack. It must have been a blip. There’s a lot wrong with Panama – the script and casting deserve much of the blame – but it’s all just so badly, ineptly handled by Boorman, who shows all the confidence and skill of a raw 22-year-old film-school graduate.

The first couple of minutes prove an depressingly accurate prediction of what’s to come, with some strikingly cheap-looking titles confusingly mixed in with scene-setting on-screen captions. These spell out, in the most elementary of ways, the history and strategic importance of the Panama Canal, which we see in a couple of impressive aerial shots as a plane carrying British spy Osnard (Brosnan) comes in to land. A fellow passenger obligingly tells him – and us – some more bits of breathtakingly clunky background exposition before the plane touches down.

There’s worse to come – shortly after, we see the eponymous tailor, Pendel (Rush), chalking out a suit on a sheet of cloth. Apparently Rush spent months learning the tailor’s art, including this particular tricky bit of expertise. And what does Boorman do? He runs it in comedy quick motion, so there’s no way of knowing if Rush is any good at it or not. Rush never again gets to do much actual tailoring on screen – and nor does Boorman show us anything more of that amazing canal. Much song and dance has been made about how this is the first Panama-shot movie (the President is apparently a ‘Brosnan fan’, if there can be such a person) but for all Boorman actually uses the locations, it might as well have all been done in Miami.

The plot itself isn’t unpromising, although it’s a recognisable ‘borrowing’ from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana. Our man in Panama is Osnard, exiled to this Central American backwater in disgrace after he chased one skirt too many in a more suitably 007-ish glam locale. Keen to impress his London bosses, he identifies ‘Savile Row’-trained tailor Pendel as a hot source of gossip and political info. Trouble is, Pendel is a fake, who learned his trade in prison and has successfully spun enough yarns to build up a business and a happy family, with wife Louisa (Curtis) and children blissfully unaware of the truth. True to form, Pendel rapidly starts inventing stories to impress his glamorous new ‘friend,’ but his harmless elaborations take a serious turn when he dreams up a tale about the Canal’s impending sale – to the Chinese. Plausibility hasn’t been the movie’s strong suit up till this point, but, along with coherence and pace, it now goes totally out the window as the panicky Americans panic send in the military with all guns blazing.

There’s so much to dislike about The Tailor of Panama it’s hard to know where to start. The script wastes its intriguing setting and premise, fizzling to an ending that’s unsatisfying on every level.   With one notable exception, performances are mostly poor, with Brosnan’s limitations becoming all too painfully apparent. His Osnard is clearly supposed to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, sexist pig – thoroughly obnoxious. But surely not this gratingly obnoxious? The character has no redeeming features, and while Brosnan’s presence is intended as a clever casting coup, it has the unpleasant stench of an actor shitting on the Bond franchise that’s been so good to him over the last few years. Brendan Gleeson is, by contrast, a strong, versatile actor, but what on earth is he doing done up as a Greek-Panamanian revolutionary? Curtis doesn’t have much to do, but she surely could she have been lit and shot a little less unflatteringly. Harold Pinter pops up (awkwardly) intermittently as Pendel’s deceased partner, now the voice of his conscience, but it’s another casting gimmick, impeding whatever sluggish flow the story can muster.

But it’s the tone that’s the most disturbing thing about The Tailor of Panama. On the one hand, there are plenty of serious references to the atrocities of Panama’s former military regime headed by Gen Noriega – Pendel’s secretary, the gracious, badly scarred Marta (Leonor Varela) stands as a constant visual reminder of the past – but the movie ends up trivialising the subject matter, heading instead down increasingly farcical avenues. It’s typical that at various stages we see her name written as ‘Marta’ and ‘Martha’.

Though ostensibly dealing with real political issues, Panama ends up reducing its participants to crude caricatures – the grinning, oily, corrupt journalist Teddy (Martin Ferrero) an especially insulting example. Likewise, Dylan Baker’s ranting US military chief seems to have strayed in from another film entirely – Dr Strangelove, perhaps. It’s a rare poor performance from the ubiquitous and otherwise-reliable Baker (the excellent Martin Topsy-Turvy Savage is similarly wasted in a nothing role), not helped by Boorman showing us the his memory of the US’s humiliating retreat from Panama in a momentary flashback on a TV screen, for no apparent reason.

Boorman’s biggest single error, however, is to ‘loop’ (post-record) almost all the dialogue. He’s been doing it for years, and it usually works OK, but here the results are a succession of dead, artificial scenes, entirely lacking in impact and tension. There’s an especially jarring sequence on a boat featuring a singer and a band, and it’s distractingly, absurdly obvious that what we’re hearing has been recorded in a studio, and not in the open air. In the year 2001, surely audiences can put up with a bit of roughness in the sound department – the Danish dogme diktat forbidding looping has rarely seemed more justified.

On the plus side – and it’s just about the only plus – we have Rush as Pendel, a typically witty, warm, physical, committed, unpredictable performance from this impressive actor. But, as with his most recent releases Quills and House on Haunted Hill, it’s distressing to see strong work wasted in such an undeserving movie. At least House didn’t pretend to be anything other than a throwaway fright picture (though it even failed in this modest aspiration). Panama, aiming higher, ends up just as depressing. This is a movie about the Panama Canal which plods through 109 minutes without once mentioning the genius who built it, de Lesseps. On second thoughts, that’s probably just as well.

6th April, 2001