“Our Man in Panama”–a jocular reference actually made at one point in John le Carre’s 1996 novel–might actually be a better title for John Boorman’s curious adaptation of the book than the one they’ve retained. Despite the author’s participation as co-writer and executive producer, the film version of “The Tailor of Panama” is in some respects closer to Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” (itself made into a film, scripted by Greene himself, in 1959) than to le Carre’s original. There was always a admitted dose of homage in the novel, of course: apart from the similarity in title, the premise of a reluctant spy feeding false information to an inept British intelligence service was precisely the same. (The choice of Panama, with which Greene had such close contact in his later years, was hardly accidental, either.) But “Our Man in Havana” was much more lighthearted than le Carre’s book–one of Greene’s divertissements, as he called them–and in Carol Reed’s filmization neither Alec Guinness’ unflappable Wormold, nor Noel Coward’s snooty field agent, nor Ralph Richardson’s densely uncomprehending Head of British Intelligence could be taken as anything other than delightfully satiric types, and the twist denouement would have been at home in an Ealing comedy. There was an undercurrent of serious commentary in Greene’s work, of course, but it was muted. Le Carre’s novel, on the other hand, was a satire, but an extremely dark one with tragic overtones, and the characters (especially the title figure of Harry Pendel) weren’t merely jokes–indeed, many had a truly pathetic dimension to them.
Boorman’s adaptation gravitates away from le Carre’s vision and more toward Greene’s. Some of the novel’s intensity has been retained: Pendel, for example, doesn’t become the archly proper chap that Wormold was, and as played by Geoffrey Rush he remains a man who, in his clumsy attempts to stave off personal embarrassment, puts others at risk. But here the outcome isn’t as devastating, either for him or the country he’s living in, as it was in the novel. It’s as though the filmmakers had decided that, to push the Greene analogy further, they would emulate Reed’s picture rather than, let’s say, Joseph Mankiewicz’s film of “The Quiet American” (though even there, of course, Greene’s originally anti-American ending was decidedly bowdlerized). The result is a film that has its moments, but seems to have been compromised to meet the supposed expectations of the moviegoing public. What’s worse, the refashioning job isn’t particularly expert: in heavily revising the plot in order to make it more digestible for a mass audience, the makers have introduced a degree of narrative confusion absent from the source, transformed one major character into a heavy-handed cinematic spoof, and concocted an elaborate final act that wants to recall “Dr. Strangelove” but is so broad that it’s more like “Spies Like Us.”
“The Tailor of Panama” is about a British clothier in Panama City who’s settled down in relative comfort (though he has financial difficulties), married an American woman who works for the government, and sired two children; in fact, however, he’s a fraud, an ex-con who learned his trade in an English prison and is passing himself off as a Seville Road dandy. It’s Harry Pendel’s dubious background that makes him an easy blackmail target for British operative Andy Osnard, recently attached to the Panama embassy. In the book Osnard is a young fellow on his first posting, who recruits Pendel as an informant to help his career along, but Boorman has transformed him into a dissolute senior officer and given him the background of one of le Carre’s lesser characters, Nigel Stormont–he’s now a fellow removed from a previous appointment because of a sexual indiscretion. Moreover, Boorman has cast none other than Pierce Brosnan, the erstwhile James Bond, to play him. Thus Osnard becomes a sort of dissipated 007 stand-in, and his motives are monetary: he eventually uses Pendel’s misinformation to steal a large sum of cash from the Brits and the Americans. The ending, with all sorts of money-changing-hands satire concerning corruption in the British foreign service and macho military blundering by the U.S. (represented by Dylan Baker as a Pentagon general who’s a feeble copy of Buck Turgidson), involves a lot of running about and slammed doors; it’s not far removed from French bedroom farce, but the result isn’t very successful, since the complications aren’t laid out with sufficient clarity or played with the offhanded precision that kind of material needs.
Through it all, however, Rush and Brosnan do yeoman work. Though the altered ending, which averts a U.S. invasion of Panama and allows Pendel to return to the bosom of his family, reduces the tragic trajectory of his character, Rush displays considerable skill in depicting a man forced into actions he deplores. Brosnan seems to be having a grand time sending up his Bond persona; a scene in which he forces Pendel to dance with him in a gay bar is particularly cutting–indeed, one wonders whether the whole performance isn’t designed to sever him from the 007 franchise. But within the context of le Carre’s story, turning Osnard into an insider joke and giving him purely mercenary motives undermine much of what the original book is about in favor of something far more obvious. There’s also a fine brief turn by Harold Pinter as Pendel’s late uncle Benny, who appears to him periodically as an avuncular ghost to offer sage advice. Pinter has the best throwaway lines in the script, and he obviously savors delivering them.
On the other hand, Jamie Lee Curtis is largely wasted as Pendel’s wife Louisa; she’s reduced mostly to glowering suspiciously about what her husband’s doing, and her scenes with Brosnan come across as forced. The talented Brendan Gleeson overacts badly as Mickie Abraxas, the alcoholic whom Pendel makes the centerpiece of his spurious “rebel” network (perhaps Gleeson undertook the role simply as a favor to Boorman, in whose–much better–film “The General” he starred), as does Jon Polito as an unsavory banker. The director’s penchant for nepotism, which in years past led him to give roles to his son Charley (most notably as Tomme in 1985’s “The Emerald Forest”) here casts his (grand?)daughter Lola as Sarah, the younger of Pendel’s children, and it’s a mistake: the child peeks periodically at the camera and never seems comfortable onscreen. Parental affection ought not to overcome a director’s professional intincts.
In sum “The Tailor of Panama” is a film that, despite some excellent elements, is too haphazardly constructed and tonally unsure to provide more than modest, sporadic amusement. It lacks the subtlety of its source, replacing it with a broad approach that can be pleasant enough but is devoid of depth. Refashioned only imperfectly from the book, it ends up neither fish nor fowl, an amalgam of drama, satire and farce which never comes together into a satisfying whole.