Unseamly Lives

If you think the spy-thriller genre has been streamlined and spoofed and subverted until nothing new can be done to it, think again. John Boorman’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1996 novel The Tailor of Panama, starring Pierce Brosnan as a swankily cynical British operative and Geoffrey Rush as the man he blackmails, is a tragicomic spree with hot and cold running water in its veins. Le Carre’s novel was inspired by Graham Greene, especially his book Our Man in Havana, and Boorman, who co-scripted with Le Carre and Andrew Davies, has made a movie that often seems close in spirit to Greene’s puckish woe. Boorman slips into the salsa rhythm of the Panamanian state; he gives corruption its sexy due. The glittering high-risebanks and luxe clubs and prostitute flophouses all have an equivalency – they reek of foul money. Rarely do we see any travelogue-ish vistas of Panama’s natural beauty, because Boorman has a keener eye for the beauty inside all this high-low squalor. He’s spent enough time in rain forests in his career. In The Tailor of Panama, he’s going after a different species of flora altogether.

Andy Osnard (Brosnan) has been exiled to Panama by his MI6 superiors after too many indiscretions with the wives and mistresses of British ambassadors and too many gambling debts. Ordered to monitor money laundering and drug smuggling, he quickly gets the goods on Harry Pendel (Rush), a British subject who tailors the Panamanian elite. Harry pretends to have a Saville Row background when in fact his skills were picked up in prison while serving time for arson. In exchange for keeping mum about Harry’s past, Osnard uses the tailor as an informant and as a guide to Panama’s wicked ways. As odd couples go, the two men are a perfect match. Both are very good at creating illusions because deep down they have no illusions of their own. For Osnard, the absence of any humbuggery in his constitution is a source of pride; for Harry, it’s a sorrowful lack.

The film is set in 1999, after the fall of Noriega and after the Panama Canal has been given back to Panama by the U.S. Harry feeds Osnard false information that the canal is on the block, perhaps to the Chinese or the Japanese (for that Yellow Peril effect). Unbelieving but maneuvering for a big payday, Osnard feeds the information to the British and Americans, who are only too willing to act on any excuse to take back the canal. The film starts out as a freewheeling farce and turns into a pitch-black burlesque with surprising depths of feeling. The concoctions of these two fabulists have mortal consequences. Real lives are lost when their spymaster fantasies are made flesh.

Pierce Brosnan’s role here has been characterized in the press as that of the anti-James Bond, but that’s not quite right. Osnard has the waxy, libidinous sheen of the early Sean Connery as 007 – James Bond in his walking-phallus stage. (As the current Bond, Brosnan is more like a walking product endorsement for the good life.) For Osnard, getting the lowdown on anyone means tapping into that person’s sexual secrets. His entire existence is toned by sex, which is why Panama City, which reeks of it, is practically Edenic for him. When he asks Harry’s American wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), how Harry won her heart, he’s looking for a way to worm his way inside her. Just for the dirty sport of it. Osnard’s life is lived without metaphor. He describes espionage as “dark, lonely work, like oral sex,” and the joke is that, for him, the two are literally the same. (He’s in on the joke.)

Geoffrey Rush’s performance has a freakish passion unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in the movies. (His most famous acting job, in Shine, was for me more stunt than marvel.) He has a genius for showing us the still center in a whirligig. When Rush is at his best, in Quills and in this film, you really have to focus instant by instant on what he’s doing because he’s giving you much more than most actors ever do, and he’s giving it to you all at once. What for most performers can end up looking like freneticism is, for Rush, something closer to an infatuation with the jumbled contrariness of character. What he does has the velocity of a drive-by performance – all bluster and high impact – but he gives each outburst its own emotional coloration. He may be adervish, but he’s a highly articulated one.

The Judas overtones in Harry’s Jewishness made some critics uneasy with Le Carre’s novel, but I don’t think the movie will provoke the same discomfort. Rush’s performance is far too rousing and complex to fit into any Semitic stereotype. Inventing ever more outrageous lies, Harry is both aghast at his treachery and mesmerized – tickled – by it. He lies not only because he is being blackmailed but because, until things spin out of control, he likes the way that fabricating makes him feel. He builds up the people he loves –especially the former anti-Noriega freedom fighter and current drunk Mickie Abraxas, played by the marvelous Brendan Gleeson – into what they by all rights should be. They are fantasized into being the best of who they are. Harry tries to do the same for his own depleted spirit; he hungers to be brought into his most ardent self. His fervent, deluded attempts at self-transformation give the film its richness. Like Osnard, Harry lives a life in which metaphor has become literal: He is quite aware that he is a tailor of souls.

In Le Carre’s novel, Harry’s end is less than sunny, but here, as if intribute to Rush’s performance and the life force he embodies, he has a better time of it. It’s almost a romantic gesture on the part of the filmmakers: They want to pay homage to the man’s capacity for folly. Harry isn’t merely a lovable, blinkered rogue. He’s the exemplar of the dreamer, and so he deserves our balm.

In brief: What is the great Gene Hackman doing in the dingbat con-artist comedy Heartbreakers playing a chain-smoking tobacco heir with stained teeth and a perpetual retching cough? He – or to be more precise, his role – is about as funny as an iron lung. Audiences for this film seeking a breath of fresh air will have a far easier time of it than Hackman: At any moment, they can simply flee the theater.

The Tailor of Panama
Directed by John Boorman, starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Gene Hackman.

Unseamly Lives