Tuesday, August 05, 2008

casablanca without heroes

I've never read a John Le Carré novel. Ever. Not even that precious weathered copy of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (retrofitted with a photograph of Richard Burton from the film adaptation) acquired in one of the numerous raddii shop runs years ago. But I've been aware of the adventures of George Smiley and of the film adaptations including The Russia House starring Sean Connery.

pinter, tailor, spy
pinter (centre), tailor (left), spy (right)

The first film adaptation of a Le Carré work I ever saw was The Constant Gardener. That solemn brooding piece of work could hardly have prepared me for The Tailor Of Panama, adapted for the screen by the writer himself (the only one so far) and directed by John Boorman. John Boorman creates a version of Le Carré's book that gets a life of its own on the screen. This is a film that works more as an acting piece than a thriller laced with spectacle and the players don't disappoint. Pierce Brosnan ends up being the second Bond actor to figure in a Le Carré adaptation and makes the most of his chance to play the "antithesis of Bond". His Andrew Osnard is an MI-6 agent, whose cover has been blown after an affair with an ambassador's mistress; Osnard's boss manages to get him a final chance -- he sends him off to Panama to try and uncover something; Osnard knows how to play people and especially women (a Bond-ian trait taken past the PG-gilded curtains of the franchise). Brosnan riffs on his image as Bond, as he imbues Osnard with a familiar charm and yet also spikes him with a dose of nastiness. Geoffrey Rush plays the titular character, Harry Pendel. Harry is a tailor, but the trouble with Harry (aah the pun!) is that he spins tales. Pendel is a nice timid and tragic figure; The shifting evolving relationship between the two men occupies the bulk of the film.

There are a few flourishes that I liked: The film opens with an interesting use of descriptive text over the film that describes the Panama canal and finally marks a segue to the main title. It's an interesting alternative to the voiceover; call it a "text-over" if you like. The other is a scene in a brothel where Harry tells Andy about the President's plans to sell off the canal as they sit on a vibrating bed while a porn film featuring Asian girls runs on the television set in the room. It's set up without fanfare and manages its effect thanks to the actors and a camera setup that eschews any attempt to draw your attention to the elements of the production design. Then there's now-Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter showing up as Uncle Benny, Harry's dead uncle and conscience. And there are references to Casablanca, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a Richard Blaine here. It's not that kind of movie.

Triviamongers will also spot Daniel Radcliffe making his film début, playing Harry's son; years later, Radcliffe has made the journey from Pendel to Potter to become famous for playing a Harry of his own.

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