The Tailor of Panama
directed by John Boorman
(Columbia TriStar, 2001)

There are 200 British nationals living in Panama -- 201 if you count Andrew "Andy" Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), a British secret agent sent there to discover what he can about the goings-on in a country that harbors the world's most famous canal.

He could have any of the 200 other British subjects as his contact, but he chooses Harold "Harry" Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a hardworking tailor who can mark up a suit faster than most merchants can mark up a price.

Why he chooses Harry is a bit of a mystery, unless it's because he knows Harry is deep in debt over a farm that has no water, or that he did six years in prison for torching his Uncle Benny's clothing factory, or that his wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), works for the canal chief, or that Harry has been known to outfit the president of Panama himself, not to mention most of the male members of Panama's 30 ruling families.

But if Harry is happy to keep the ruling class in gabardine, he's also devoted to his working-class friends, especially his secretary-receptionist-bookkeeper, Marta (Leonor Varela), and his first Panamanian customer, Michelangelo "Mickie" Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson), a former anti-Noriega activist who has been Big House-trained into submission by the former dictator's thugs.

That makes Harry a sort of house divided against himself, and like that proverbial house, he is on the verge of collapse.

So he thinks it will do no harm and a lot of good when, in return for some ready cash, he represents Marta and Abraxas to Osnard as Panama's "silent opposition," then raises the ante by suggesting that Panama is set to sell its big ditch to France, Japan, China and Taiwan, or some combination thereof.

If that makes The Tailor of Panama sound a trifle complicated, it's because it is. To follow it, it helps to know a bit about Panama and the canal and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the anger felt by conservative groups in the United States when the canal was handed over to the Panamanians.

But Tailor is ultimately a personal, not a political, thriller. The real interest lies in Harry, in seeing just how much he'll fudge in his attempts to help his friends and guard the family secrets, and in seeing what happens when his little white lies suddenly mean big bucks to a corrupt network of spies, diplomats and power brokers.

Along the way Harry gets help from the spirit of his late Uncle Benny (playwright Harold Pinter), who appears to Harry long enough to impart jewels of wisdom like, "A man who tells the truth is bound to be found out sooner or later," and a huge hand from Brosnan, who proves he's more than just a pretty face, playing a spy who makes James Bond look like a cloistered monk.

Tailor is that odd film that can be brutally funny and just plain brutal, often simultaneously. It's full of local color, flavored with just the right amount of salsa and absolutely overrun with characters it's impossible not to care about.

John le Carre, who wrote the book and worked on the script, made his mark with Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. With Tailor of Panama, it's clear le Carre himself has come in from the cold.

And there's no doubt about it, he's once more hit his mark. Dead center.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

Buy it from