Published Apr 01, 2001Geoffrey Rush ("Quills") and Pierce Brosnan (purveyor of all things Bond) are two actors I've always felt were overrated. Rush is usually foppish and over-exuberant, and Brosnan seems to do all of his acting via his tuxedo and a cocked eyebrow. Well, now I'm ready to eat my own words after seeing the new John Boorman film, "The Tailor of Panama." Rush and Brosnan are the unlikely duo at the heart of this breezy John Le Carré adaptation, and their chemistry is uncanny.
This is probably Brosnan's smartest career move yet, although it certainly won't be the most lucrative. He plays Andy Osnard, a troublesome MI-6 spy who has worn out his welcome in most places in the world, so the British government decides to transfer him to Panama, vaguely instructing him to see what he can stir up there. Osnard is a sly, cagey manipulator, perhaps more charming than intelligent, and upon arriving in Panama, he zeroes in like a heat-seeking missile on a seemingly unassuming tailor named Harry Pendel (Rush). It turns out that Pendel is just what Osnard was looking for - an affable British expatriate with a shady, blackmail-able past, and some juicy connections to both the Panamanian government as well as some anti-government revolutionaries.
Le Carré's stories are always about the more earthy, fallible aspects of the spy trade and this is no exception. Osnard and Pendel end up as a team, conning the British and American governments into thinking that they're funding a "silent opposition" that could end up putting the canal up for grabs on the international market. The leader of this apparent opposition is actually just a drunkard named Mickie (Brendan Gleeson) whose revolutionary days are clearly behind him. As the con progresses, Pendel realises that the information he provides doesn't necessarily have to have any basis in fact. As his partner in crime Osnard freely admits about the spy business, "It doesn't matter if it's true, as long as it plays."
Rush delivers the most subtle, modulated performance in the film; his Harry Pendel is a dapper gadfly who ends up drowning in his own guilt and insecurities. He's got a stunning wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) who loves him, but he can never quite convince himself that he's lucky enough to deserve her (the dashing Osnard effortlessly fuels this paranoia). He also has a buried past that includes some time in prison, and it looms over him, threatening to destroy his family and his social standing. Brosnan's performance, on the other hand, is more of an eye-catcher because he's deconstructing his James Bond image, brick by brick. This time, his charm has fangs. When walks into a room full of people, his swagger dominates everyone else, and you can see them adjusting their behaviour to accommodate his presence. When he seduces a British ambassador (Catherine McCormack), their sex is frenzied and mean, and you know he's prepared to betray her in a heartbeat.
Osnard's sexuality even extends to an odd seduction of Pendel. The lingering homoeroticism between them is in the air during their first encounter, but it becomes downright comical when Osnard chooses a gay night club for one of their meetings. They end up waltzing on the dance floor together, and although the scene is a little too overt and obvious, it nevertheless makes perfect sense.
There's something truly unique and refreshing about John Boorman's directorial rhythms in "The Tailor of Panama" - he effortlessly manages to combine suspense, comedy and character study. The storytelling only becomes a little ragged near the end, when the action is divided between a lot of different locations, and a multitude of plot threads are being sewn up. But that's hardly a blemish on a film like this. It's hard not to think of "The Tailor of Panama" as an old-fashioned film (there are lots of references to "Casablanca"), but maybe that's only because these days, popcorn movies are rarely this witty and graceful.