LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Tailor of Panama

10 June, 2016 at 10:48 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I’m so enamored of Michelle Pfeiffer that I forget to mention the 28-year age difference between her and her co-star, one of the emerging themes of this commentary. It’s almost certainly because in this case I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to hurdle that particular distance, in fiction or in real life.

CURRENTLY: The sequel to The Tinker of Panama (we’re still waiting for the third and fourth in the series) begins with Pierce Brosnan getting reassigned from his post in Spain, where he later tells us he had an affair with the ambassador’s mistress, to instead be located in Panama, where British interests are worried about the stability of local control of the canal. We are told about its return to the Panamanians in 1999 in a leaden infodump which accompanies an incredibly fake-looking CGI airliner and a ham-handedly stilted introduction to Geoffrey Rush’s eponymous character. Brosnan is blunt, crude, and specifically presented in contrast to the thin slice of suave that he’d carved out in the Bond franchise for the previous seven years. Brosnan didn’t play just Bond during his tenure, he didn’t rest on his laurels and let people think of him as nothing but 007, appearing in nine other films between Goldeneye and The World is not Enough. While only one of those nine movies seemingly traded off his Bond-based slickness — the Thomas Crown remake paints him with the same wry, uber-competence that he brought to his interpretation of Bond — and one could easily assume therefore that the audience would know him for other reasons and with other ranges, Tailor of Panama seems to be aggressively stepping forward to let us know, Ey, e’s not Bond, alright? Alright, squire? Got it? Not Bond, right? Right? A cursory Google full-text search of the original book seems to indicate that the character of Andy Oxnard never utilized the C-word in casual conversation (and lest you think that this is Google being wary of prurience, similar searches for shit and fuck come up gangbusters — 11 and 38 respectively), whereas director John Boorman has Brosnan drop it twice.

Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama
The opening sequence is oddly garish. It’s not just the aforementioned implausible exposition, which not only uses stock footage and voice-over narration that wouldn’t be out of place in a terrible travelogue (and which, incongruously, is never used again in the film), but also incorporates a terrible stock font. I don’t remember which wag of a graphic designer I saw efficiently take down James Cameron’s use of Papyrus in Avatar, but only because I had been struck the same way: no multi-million dollar film should be introduced by graphics readily available in Microsoft Word. A quick online font analysis tells me that the above titles are a variant on another Microsoft classic, Dom Casual, which Wikipedia informs me was also used on Bewitched and Barney Miller. That is not the kind of tone I expect from Le Carré. I don’t care if you’re trying to be arch in your not-Bond satire, swinging all the way to evoking sit-coms is a pendulum too far.

The film then attempts a radical corrective, with a bravura sequence of Geoffrey Rush “striking the pattern” of a suit, apparently all from memory and without coaching, which is some serious devotion to the craft. It is sped up, and therefore soundless, so for all I know there was a bespoke tailor just off camera shouting, “Right, now measure eight inches up on the tape. Now trace the curve of the ruler with the chalk. Now turn it around. No, not that way! Like we practiced!” But it seems unlikely. The other trick the film pulls is to have Harold Pinter, of all people, manifest as Rush’s criminal mentor and conscience. He’s as plummy and unthreatening — and utterly unlike a career felon — as Rush is obsequious and sniveling. When melding out of the shadows like the spectre of the Old Man in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Pinter is a welcome bit of inanity made flesh, even if it’s one more narrative trick the film is using to remind us that, well, it’s not quite sure what kind of a story it’s telling here.


“A simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot
from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.”

All of which is very bizarre, considering that the screen adaptation is credited to Andrew Davies, who is basically the king of the British literary adaptation, having worked on the Colin Firth Pride and Predjudice, the Kate Beckinsale Emma, the original Ian Richardson House of Cards, and even Bridget Jones. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t even put a foot wrong in his long and storied career, it just seems more likely that if there are variances in the tone or clumsy executions in clever storytelling, that it may have been in the directorial execution rather than in the initial adaptation.

And I am also inclined to give the source a break. Again, while I have not read it myself, it is the first Le Carré to have been published during my period of media awareness, so I do recall the general tone of reviews and celebrations upon its initial release. I probably read Kurt Jensen’s review in the Boston Globe, now hidden behind a pre-1997 paywall, but one can find similar impressions in The Times or even Entertainment Weekly, all of whom have bitten down hard on the narrative that they’re so pleased that a man who specialized in Cold War fiction still has something to write about! They are broadly forgiving of any writerly lapses because the book is such a lovely satire, so charming and Graham Greene-esque! All of which gives me a better indication of what Boorman and Davies were trying to encapsulate and navigate: a multiple-perspective narrative of dissemblers who had fancies above their respective stations. It’s also difficult to suspect that the original novel may have been fatally flawed when in Myron Aronoff’s The Spy Novels of John le Carré, he quotes an interview where Le Carré said of The Tailor of Panama:

'It's a very personal book.  I was exploring the relationship between myself and my own fabricator.'

All of which makes for a charming read, but still leaves us with an adaptation where everyone is actually less interesting than they would like to appear, and considerably less impressive than the Tailor’s fabricated intelligence paints them as. Jamie Lee Curtis shows up as a wife that the main character doesn’t think he deserves, and — as mentioned in last week’s preview of this entry — wee Daniel Radcliffe plays their son. Brendan Gleeson plays a drunk, alternating between scenes where he’s overplaying it with scenes where he has the level of self-pity and sloppiness right on the nose. And then Dylan Baker makes a late appearance as an American general who left Panama when the US handed control back to the locals, and who makes the bizarre strident claim, “There’s a missing star on our flag, gentlemen!” as if it had been on the brink of becoming the legendary 51st State. It’s astonishingly broad, more in keeping with an am-dram recreation of Dr. Strangelove than the previous fourth-fifths of the film. This line, by the by, does not seem to be anywhere in the source material.

After some seriously ropey CGI jet fighters and a brief dalliance with an alternate ending in an attempt to counteract the original material — where, as the Times review put it, “villains are rewarded and the innocent and the least villainous are cruelly punished.” — we finally end with no one, including the audience, really getting what he deserves. Except, well, in that the last shot is literally Geoffrey Rush making Harry Potter and the director’s daughter some pancakes. That’s pretty great.

NEXT: Speaking of Harry Potter… He Who Shall Not Be Named makes a film that Shall Not Be Remembered by very many people. Obliviate!


Related Links:
Couple more Tailor book reviews: Kirkus, New York Review of Books, and an alternate New York Times.
Speaking of Brosnan, I can’t watch him any more without thinking of the Adam & Joe 6Music Taffin meme. Oh, good lord.

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