Tailored to fit

Film - Philip Kerr finds nothing novel about the latest le Carre adaptation

Rather like Hegel, Hollywood has fairly earned the honour of having ruined many a good idea by a series of reductiones ad absurdum. Film has an awkward habit of stripping a novel - good or bad - to its basics; and, without the protecting roof of a literary style, a satirical intent or a guiding metaphysic, the timbers and walls of a plot are left exposed to the merciless elements of common sense and unsuspended disbelief. The Hubble telescope of Hollywood magnifies the shortcomings of one story and the second-hand, derivative, trite unoriginality of another. These days, more often than not (and with apologies to Harry S Truman), the only thing new in the world of movies is the old movies you don't already know. Except, that is, when someone like me tells you.

I have not read John le Carre's novel The Tailor of Panama but, on the evidence of this film version, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush, I can tell you that it contains an excellent, amusing story.

A deracinated, beliefless, daydreaming sort of Englishman, practising a pretty urban sort of trade a long way from home, accepts an offer of cash from another Englishman - this one mysterious and spivvy - to become an MI6 agent. To justify the increasingly generous amounts of cash, which improve our tradesman's credit at the bank and the local club, not to mention his self-respect, he files bogus reports that name his friends as field agents. Spook Central is soon beside itself with excitement about its important new source, and that's when the shit hits the fan. MI6 decides that the intelligence being gathered is sufficiently important to bring in the Americans; and this results, indirectly, in the death of our tradesman's best friend. All that he holds dear is suddenly placed in jeopardy.

As I have said, this is a pretty good story. There is just one problem: it is also the story in Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havana, which was itself indifferently filmed by Carol Reed in 1960, starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward. Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that le Carre has ripped off Greene. Le Carre is an honourable man. In the acknowledgements that appear at the back of the book, he gives due credit to Greene, as follows: "Without Graham Greene this book would never have come about."

My point is that without the style and satirical intent that perhaps distinguished le Carre's book, what we have here, more or less exactly, is the same film that we had back in 1960. True, the new one is in colour, and not black and white; and it has different actors. But er, that's about it, I'm afraid. Because, as far as the film version of the book is concerned, there is nothing in le Carre's screenplay - nor, for that matter, in Boorman's direction - that brings anything new to the table.

For much of the film, I found myself wondering what Greene might have said if he were still with us. I dare to think that he might have agreed with some of the following observations:

Pierce Brosnan is rather good as the Noel Coward character from MI6, playing a satisfyingly nastier version of James Bond - the sort of cruel, sadistic Bond that Ian Fleming (who idolised Coward, and was his near-neighbour in Jamaica) always intended him to be.

Geoffrey Rush as the swivel-eyed tailor Harry Pendel (the Alec Guinness-type character) is dreadful, like Shylock on Prozac. Harold Pinter flits in and out of the picture, playing the ghost of Rush's Jewish tailoring partner in a way that reminds one of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). This never quite works, and it ought to have ended up on the cutting-room floor with the rest of the schmutter.

That a character like Harry Pendel should be married to the real-life Lady Haden-Guest (aka Jamie Lee Curtis) strains all credulity. (Did I say Shylock? I really meant Alfie Bass in Polanski's Dance of the Vampires.) As does the supposed Savile Row excellence of the tailoring. Pendel's suits look as if they were cut with the same cheese knife that was used to edit the film. I have seen better suits on Martin Bell.

Which brings me to the continuity: all one can say is that the person who took care of it must be suffering from a multiple personality disorder. This is the kind of continuity only Leibniz could have understood, in the sense of there being some sort of sovereign wisdom, the source of all things, that acts as a perfect Geometer and according to a harmony that admits of no addition. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, the film's exteriors seemed oddly inconsistent with the interiors, as if there had been a problem with the locations.

To be fair, the job of continuity is hardly made easier by the device of the ghost, nor by the almost non-existent verisimilitude: many of the shots look cheap and bodged together; and at one point, Harry Pendel moves the hand of a dead body in which advanced rigor mortis has supposedly set in, only for "the body" to unclasp its own fingers. You might have thought you were looking at a scene being played out on the stage of Northampton Repertory Theatre, rather than in a movie that cost $30m-plus. Could not Boorman have simply gone for another take? Or, at worst, insisted on reshooting the scene? Apparently not.

Greene disliked films that neglected their poetic imagery and stories with pictures that did nothing to illuminate life. By all accounts, he did not think much of the film version of Our Man in Havana. I suspect Greene would have liked this version even less.

The Tailor of Panama (15) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made