Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is a British spy who has recently screwed up (actually, he has been discovered having an affair with a diplomat’s wife) and been dispatched to Panama, an assignment that on its face, looks like it will be dull and dreggy. So begins The Tailor of Panama, an international spy movie with a little more on its mind than the usual Bondian gizmos and girls—yes, please note the cute nod, in Brosnan’s casting as a chic and arrogant operative, to his most famous role, and it’s not Remington Steele.
Andy’s disappointment with his new assignment leads him to seek out ways to stir things up. And so, immediately on his arrival, he seeks out the colorful characters. Among these, the most gossipy is Henry (Geoffrey Rush), a self-exiled British tailor who spends much of his time hobnobbing with the tiny nation’s wealthy denizens, drunks, and assorted official has-beens. On meeting Andy, Henry describes the local scene to him as “Casablanca without heroes.” Indeed, between the divey bars and the brothels (where Henry and Andy spend some awkward minutes on a magic-fingers bed, discussing business and looking very silly), the place is both depressed and depressing. Henry, you soon learn, has his own reasons for being stuck there, namely, a seamy past that he’s keeping from his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) and their two kids. Though he does all right as a tailor and gossip, he’s also incurred some debts that are making his present life, a bit, ah, tight.
In other words, Henry’s in need of cash, and if some low-stakes adventure comes with it, that’s fine with him too. The trouble comes in the size of the stakes. When Andy hints that the British government will pay for information concerning the status of the Canal (recently turned over to Panama by the United States), Henry can’t resist. He begins spinning increasingly elaborate spy-like stories about people he knows, including the manager of his tailor shop, the mysterious and badly scarred Marta (Leonor Varela); the town drunk Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson, yet again terrific); and Louisa, who happens to work for the office overseeing the Canal.
It’s obviously a bad idea, but once he starts, Henry can’t stop—the stories become more and more tangled, even as he conjures up his own conscience-figure, a deceased mentor, Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter), who pops up periodically in the tight space of the fitting room to offer Henry advice and admonitions. Meanwhile, Andy develops his own investment in the stories—to the point that it hardly matters whether they’re real or not. Andy sees the exchanges of “information” and money as a means to salvage his own sagging career, or at least break up the tedium and get back at the suits who banished him. As a bonus, he’s also improving his sex life: enticed by the fact that he’s working on something “big,” his British office coworker, Francesa (Catherine McCormack), agrees to a series of secret, sweaty, unsentimental trysts. Almost incidental to everything else that goes on here, these scenes become almost mechanical—this is what good-looking, affluent white folks in spy movies do when they’re bored.
The film is full of twists and turns, blackmails and betrayals, all leading the two men deeper and deeper into a fictional hole from which they will be unable to extricate themselves. Based on John LeCarre’s novel and produced, directed, and co-written by John Boorman (his co-writers are LeCarre and Andrew Davies), The Tailor of Panama is often darkly witty, in its focus on the white “imperialists”’ perpetual misapprehension of the local culture and the individuals who actually have lives apart from those outsiders who think themselves “superior,” at the very least in their tastes in fashion and liquor.
The once-robust Mickey is one example of the consequences of such misjudgment. Broken and sad, he lumbers about, occasionally erupting in drunken fits, naming names and pointing fingers, only to be carted off to bed by Henry, the ultimate smoother-over. But if Mickey’s a tragic figure, he’s also a blustering, somewhat ridiculous one, a man who feels impotent, he’s resorted to self-destruction. The quietly watchful Marta may be the more perfect embodiment of how things can go wrong in neo-colonialist states. Surrounded by men who can’t help but stare at her damaged face and wonder how she came to be that way, Marta remains a tantalizing enigma. Some of her former compatriots (including Mickey and Henry), remember her as she once was—a flawless beauty ruined during a brief rebellion against the occupying forces. None of the men can see her in any way beyond his own fantasies and needs. Even Henry, who has memories of the terrible event that scarred one half of her face, understands her only in terms of his own self-perceived tragedy. He’s so locked inside his own experience that he can’t act, can’t be smart, and can’t be generous. And that, in The Tailor of Panama, is the ultimate sin.