Review of ‘The Tailor From Panama’ by John Le Carre.

‘In a place this treacherous , what a good spy needs is a spy of his own’.

Wise and prescient words that we can quote from Le Carre’s book. The novel and the movie offer a lot of new stuff for Le Carre fans – it is post Cold War world now and the traditional rivalry between the bipolar rivals led by the USA and USSR has ceased to exist, Pierce Brosnan gets to don the role of  a spy in real life post his stint as James Bond and Le Carre reinvents the traditional spy novel here as a satire that is unconventional and even levitious in sheer contrast to the grim Cold War chill in his past works.


Le Carre’s novel is easy on the plot and provides us with moments to have a quiet smile if not a loud guffaw. It opens by mentioning a bit of history about the Panama Canal in Central America that is a lifeline for ships as it connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Modern day Panama is still no magic land – it is ironic that its unique geopolitical advantage has not served its people. Instead there is a matter-of-fact statement about drugs and money-laundering being the key drivers of the land. Change for the better should ultimately come but in the novel’s setting, criminal enterprise is easy and inevitable.

Things are set up in motion when a disgraced MI6 spy, Andy Osnard, (Pierce Brosnan) is shunted to Panama like the wild kids being sent to the colonies when the British Empire was at its prime. He quickly finds a harmless conster Harry Pendel, (Geoffrey Rush) who claims to have Savile Row credentials and gains access to ‘suiting-and-booting’ the elite class in Panama. The unique access provides him with sufficient insights to spin off fertile stories that seem to bear a grain of truth.

The two begin a game of building spy stories (a restive revolutionary group called ‘the silent opposition’, a devious plot to sell the Panama Canal to the highest bidder, ‘assassination’ of the rebel leader) that can be fed back to British and US intelligence organizations. In a truly satirical manner the ‘powers-that-be’ are blinded by their desire to control the Panama Canal and use the most specious story to funnel in US 15 Million to support revolutionaries and follow it up with a military attack to take charge. The movie is more realistic as the attack gets called off but the novel leaves it hanging in open space. Le Carre admitted to being influenced by Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’ that was prescient to sight the seeds of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

What worked from me:

Pierce Brosnan ‘anti-Bond’ trick – He spoofs his Bond persona with ease. He maintains the demeanor of Bond. He romances the women he meets but lacks the glitzy car and Q’s gadgets. There is no megalomaniac villain in the picture but hey Brosnan can play a smarmy low-life and get away with it too. The story is no moral tale and the rogues seem to have all the fun at the end of it.

Casting Brosnan was a coup (a similar attempt was made by having Sean Connery play a dissolute British publisher in a movie adaptation of Le Carre’s ‘The Russia House). And he showcases his acting chops brilliantly. The same suave and worldly Bond who ostensibly represents MI6 but has gone rogue in a delightfully malicious manner.

Geoffrey Rush is a surprise package –

Brosnan needed an equal counterpoise to make the story fun and the mild-mannered Rush is up to the task. He is weak and ineffectual but good at whipping up stories. Indeed when Brosnan presses him repeatedly he keeps building a nice ‘house-of-cards’. We feel his bluff will be caught soon enough but Brosnan humours him for his own game and Rush reminds me of Scheherazade from the Arabian nights – every night she has to weave a new tale to save her life. 

Rush is not that desperate but he does manage to buy peace and money by inventing stories that entrap all his near and dear ones. He eventually seeks redemption that is granted by his loving wife though it seems farcical given the destruction caused by his venal ways.

Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely

There is no intelligence, no foresight, no application of thought and mind. It is all an easy game like shooting fish in a barrel. The faceless technocrats are mindless of the pain they cause. They have their interests to protect and that forces them to play their hand in a cavalier manner. Ends justify the means so to say in short.

What I would give a miss:

Nostalgia – the Cold War détente, the ‘Smiley- Karla’ face-off

Le Carre is known to plot dense stories with a series of tactics, moves and counter-moves like in a game of Chess. All the deception and deceit is played with a Poker face wherein a lot is left unstated and needs to be intuited. In sheer contrast the ‘over-the-top’ buffoonery is a satire we enjoy but it leaves us unsatiated. For those who have savoured Le Carre’s earlier works, it is difficult to be weaned off and be fed a souffle instead.

Where is the plot ?

Oh a tangled web that hasn’t been weaved at all even though deception is the name of the game. The plot loses it all in the climax. One can’t imagine anyone willing to bankroll US 15 Million on a hare-brained revolution plot that is further backed up by an impressive ‘air-raid’. Well its better to suspend all disbelief and just watch the farce that unfolds on the screen. Mercifully the movie-makers realized that the final scene is just not playing Cricket. So they affected rapprochement and the air-raid was called off.

Overall the movie still worth a watch as the ‘Brosnan-Rush’ keep you entertained. You need to treat the yarn as a joke and not look a Trojan horse in the mouth.


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