`Farewell' comes close to being a perfect Cold War spy story. It shares some of the themes of `Lives of Others' The Lives of Others [DVD
] but is told with a wry, ironic sense of humour which elevates the atmosphere above the typically bleak and bitter outlook of life behind the collapsing Iron Curtain.
It's a French film set in Moscow, which works far better than you might think, which examines how the action of a KGB officer might have led to Gorbachev's eventual path of glasnost and perestroika. The action follows an unwilling French engineer who ends up carrying secrets across borders while lying to his family about his actions. The KGB Colonel tells lies to everyone automatically, and watches as his family life unravels in parallel with the collapse of the socialist ideals he still believes in.
The performances are superb; Willem Dafoe plays a small role perfectly as the Teflon-edged CIA chief, but the two males leads - French and Soviet - steal the show completely. The wildly unlikely relationship between a spy and his handler is beautifully portrayed: they can't be honest with their families or lovers, so they only have faith in each other. They throw tradecraft to the wind and take ridiculous risks, almost daring fate to stop them - the KGB Colonel is particularly distraught about what damage his actions must bring yet he knows them to be honourable, and at no time does he betray his ideals... only his government. Even as events spiral out of their control, the relationship between these two men deepens immensely, until the Russian knows (secondhand) the intimate secrets of his friend's marriage.
On top of all that, `Farewell' also examines the nature of the father-son relationship, and manages a nail-chewingly tense finale. The plot machinations are pure genius, more than worth of Le Carre at his peak.
One of the very best foreign language films of the year.