His most complex and unconventional novel of recent years is The Tailor of Panama, and as adapted by director John Boorman, the feature film is even harder to define. Tailor weaves a rich Panamanian travelogue, an exposé of third-world corruption, a comedy about how not to gather intelligence and a character study that turns on untruths and consequences. Boorman loses his grip on LeCarré's many threads (both worked on the screenplay), but Tailor of Panama still proves a highly original and provocative film.
Geoffrey Rush plays the title role of Harry Pendel, an English immigrant who prides himself on dressing Panama's ruling elite in "the Saville Row tradition," a vestige of Old World class and colonialism. But mysterious new customer Andrew Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) reveals that Harry is a fraud, having left England not as an aristocratic tailor but as an ex-convict who started a new life after serving time for committing arson.
Osnard himself makes a figure of dubious morality. An intelligence agent for England's MI6 "exiled" to Panama following a career of indiscretions, he's eager to again be in his superior's good graces. He sees Harry, former tailor of strongman Manuel Noriega, as having the contacts to make him the perfect informant. Harry, struggling to sustain a debt-ridden farm, two children and a wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), reluctantly accepts.
But when Harry can't provide the kind of juicy information Osnard will pay for, the tailor begins making up stuff out of whole cloth, as it were. His boozing friend Mickey (Brendan Gleeson) and lovely assistant Marta (Leonor Varela), both left with wounds after the Noriega years, become leaders of Panama's noble but nonexistent "Silent Opposition." The film uses our memories of Noriega in a similar way that Three Kings used Saddam Hussein, as a kind of short-hand for third-world politics that might otherwise leave moviegoers confused.
LeCarré portrays the tradecraft of spying as being less cloak and dagger than smoke and mirrors, with Osnard more interested in impressing his bosses than verifying Harry's claims of arms deals and the sale of the Canal. But when Harry's inventions are accepted as truths, events begin to take dangerous turns. "It's life imitating art," Osnard shrugs. In its complexities, the film never talks down to its audience, instead it counts on it to pay close attention and appreciate lines like, "A man who tells the truth will be found out sooner or later."
Part of the pleasure of Tailor is seeing Brosnan tinker with his 007 image. An inveterate gambler and womanizer, Osnard seems exactly the kind of agent who imagines himself to be a "real" James Bond (and one imagines that Brosnan's involvement sealed the deal that brought the book to the big screen). He rocks in hammocks, raffishly leaves cigarettes hanging from his mouth, smugly flirts with Harry's wife and a British diplomat (Catherine McCormack) and turns nasty when things don't go his way.
Boorman appears equally eager to explore the notion of Bond as a sleaze, staging Harry and Osnard's clandestine meetings in such venues as a busy brothel and a gay disco. Boorman rarely shows much interest in straight-ahead cinematic realism (Deliverance and Hope & Glory are exceptions), and here makes an already complicated and shifty storyline even more dislocating through sudden flashbacks and strange memory devices. Harry's late mentor, Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter), for instance, appears in the middle of scenes as Harry's internal voice.
The film retains the book's whiplash changes in tone, which can span from instances of terrible brutality to glimpses of a gung-ho Pentagon that are more in keeping with Dr. Strangelove. The film's final act has Panama on the brink of invasion, and a strong, well-considered climax could have tied the disparate elements together. But Boorman doesn't provide one, seemingly cutting short a last confrontation with Harry and Osnard, and ending the matter on an unconvincingly upbeat note. It ends with one of those too-sudden freeze frames that suggests the filmmakers have no idea how to leave it.
Tailor's weak resolution undercuts its many strengths, particularly its depiction of lush, colorful Panama as "Casablanca without heroes." Gleeson and Varela make their roles unexpectedly vivid and sympathetic, though we don't see them as often as we need to, while Rush's seedy elegance and breathy, verge-of-panic delivery perfectly matches Harry's increasing desperation. And tailoring itself offers an ideal metaphor for the film's examination of espionage and con-artistry, of fabric and fabrications.