By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 28, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
The Tailor of Panama: Jonathan Hessian

Geoffrey Rush is the Meryl Streep of Australia — a superbly trained actor with a killer instinct for the outsized role. Physical transformations inspire his most attention getting performances: unkempt and goggly as an emotionally damaged pianist in ”Shine,” done up like a demented peacock in satin britches in ”Quills.” In The Tailor of Panama, John Boorman’s masterful, eccentrically bespoke adaptation of John le Carré’s 1996 best seller, Rush shrugs into the title role of Harry Pendel by pitching his posture slightly forward as he scuttles about his adopted city; by clothing his podgy body in boxy, recessive gray suits; by twisting his lips in a permanent hoping-to-please smile; and by puffing his voice with air and coating it with oil as he croons compliments to the gentlemen who frequent his establishment. The physical business works: Rush is convincing as a man with secrets sewn into his psychic lining.

Pendel is a genteel needle and thread fellow capable of conveying silky Anglican pomp as he takes the measure of all the muckety mucks of Panama City. But his fancy manners and great skill as an entertaining fabulist are meant to cover over his stumpy roots as a lowborn Jewish ex-con who learned his trade in prison. Pendel is married to a proper, well-heeled government worker (Jamie Lee Curtis); he’s a beaming father to two kids (one of whom is played by Daniel Radcliffe, soon to be seen as Harry Potter) — and he meets his match when Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) walks into his shop. Osnard is a British spy — a le Carré spy, to be precise, which is to say, more shaken than stirring: He’s nothing at all like the superior James Bond gents the actor is used to creating, and Brosnan looks like he couldn’t be happier messing around as a bad boy. Osnard is a little shady, a little ruthless, and a lot liable to mischief no matter where he’s dispatched. (Panama City is not exactly a plum posting.) Just moments, it seems, after he touches down on a new assignment, Osnard, who knows of Pendel’s past, gloms onto the tale telling tailor as an entrée into Panamanian society for his own shifty (and money grubbing) purposes. That he’s picked the wrong suit eventually becomes explosively clear.

Le Carré’s ”The Tailor of Panama” is one of the writer’s typically fine sewn patchwork thrillers that delights in the dark comedy of personal and professional treacheries and counter maneuvers executed by vividly drawn characters in a colorful setting. It’s also a bitch to wrestle into a movie. Boorman’s ”Tailor,” with a valiant script originally written by le Carré himself, then custom fitted by Andrew Davies (”Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and the director, inevitably loses some of the spymaster’s snap, bite, and narrative complexity, particularly when it comes to ”uncinematic” issues of Panamanian American political history, or the subtly crucial, ever so English detail of Pendel’s Jewishness. (All that’s left: Children wear yarmulkes at his son’s religious school; the ghost of Harry’s advice-giving dead uncle Benny, feistily played by avuncular playwright Harold Pinter, appears from time to time to whisper sweet ”oy oy oys.”)

But just as he did with his slash and burn masterpieces ”Point Blank” and ”The General,” Boorman stomps into Panama with a signature energy and wit that keeps the story angled forward, rather like Rush’s posture. He saturates his movie with the steaminess, the stickiness, the sheen of sex sweat and cheat sweat and flop sweat that coats everyone pinned and wriggling in the overlapping worlds of spy and stitcher. Boorman loves syncopated action, whether it’s a hot hump session between Osnard and the cool British embassy operative (Catherine McCormack) he fixes on as a conquest, or a simple, elegant, silent, jazzily sped up scene in which Pendel chalks and cuts fabric for a suit jacket. And he conveys a kind of ruthless compassion in the intersecting stories of the drunken ex-revolutionary Mickie (”The General”’s imposing Brendan Gleeson) and Pendel’s politically active office manager, Marta (Leonor Varela, star of TV’s ”Cleopatra”). (Boorman is also fond of Jamie Lee Curtis — apparently they’re offscreen friends — but does her no favors by letting her wilt, unexcitable and unexciting, as the wife to whom Pendel is so menschily devoted.)

As the stakes are raised, a conflagration of lies, failures, and double crosses singes absolutely everyone, and ”The Tailor of Panama” can’t escape the acrid whiff of some burnt story threads. But the mohair and silk blend of Rush and Brosnan, Boorman and le Carré feels good, luxe, exciting. This is a spy movie as nubbly and textured as a James Bond flick is not (nor, of course, is meant to be). In a world full of off the rack thrillers, it’s fine boutique quality. Or as old uncle Benny might whisper, this is nice piece goods, bubeleh.