Christian Carion's 2009 account of L'Affaire Farewell aka Farewell offers a welcome return to the early form he showed with Una Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps after the mawkish misfire of Joyeux Noel, albeit with very different subject matter. Like Joyeux Noel it takes a few liberties with history, but does it in a far more credible and engrossing fashion that ultimately becomes more affecting.
Vladimir Vetrov was a high-ranking KGB officer who became disillusioned with communism and in the early 80s passed on huge amounts of classified documents and the names of Soviet agents in the west through a French engineer, who in turn passed them on to France's internal security service (Vetrov didn't trust the CIA and knew France's external security was heavily infiltrated). As a result of his intelligence, hundreds of soviet agents were exposed and expelled from the west while Russia was fed with false information, allowing Reagan to play diplomatic hardball with Gorbachev. In the film's version of events he's thanked for his efforts by the Americans exposing his identity to protect their own network of spies behind the Iron Curtain, but the truth was more complicated. While the information that put the KGB on his trail did come from a source in American intelligence (presumed to be a Russian mole), Vetrov had already been arrested for stabbing his mistress and killing a policeman he thought had uncovered his espionage after the French had temporarily stopped using him because of concerns over his drinking, and it was in prison that Vetrov let slip in letters that he'd been involved in `something big.'
The film's Vetrov is a less complicated but more tortured affair than his real-life counterpart. Like the real man he doesn't want to defect or want money (though he does provide his French contact with a shopping list of Western goods instead) but is driven by ideological motives, hoping for a new revolution to give his increasingly estranged son a better future. While he is unfaithful to his wife, there's no hint of a violent nature, offering a more wistful, playful figure who treats much of it as a game he knows he's going to lose as soon as he starts. Emir Kusturica plays him like a slow but wily and amiable bear, making a striking contrast to Guillaume Canet's reluctant mouse-like contact, and the heart of the film is the growing relationship between the two, whether it's Farewell musing over the achievements and failures of communism, sharing his love of French poetry and music or teaching him the practicalities of everyday spycraft like taking pains to befriend the people assigned to follow you because they hate their job and will be easier to fool if they think someone actually likes them.
It's those kind of passing details that are often the most telling: the French giving him an English codename because if the KGB ever found out about Farewell they'd immediately assume he was working for the CIA, President Mitterand handing over Farewell's information to Reagan to override the latter's objections to sharing information with a government with communist ministers, or Farewell providing so many documents that dozens of them fly out of the car window as his contact reads through them. But underlying it all is the price of living in lies - particularly on the home front when you can't even let your family know what you're doing - and the way Canet finds himself learning to lie in spite of himself. At one point Farewell's son berates him for his constant lies, telling him "It's not just your job, it's your nature," and as the film progresses it becomes everyone else's nature too on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Although there's some tension in the film, it's really more of a character piece than a thriller, and when it's focussing on the Russian bear and the French mouse and their increasing pressure on their families the film is at its best. The impressive supporting cast all get their moments too: Niels Arestrup's French DST director, Willem Dafoe's CIA chief and, after a shaky start, Fred Ward pins down some of Ronald Reagan's more familiar mannerisms. Only David Soul lets the side down with a Mr Magoo-like turn as one of Reagan's advisors, but thankfully he's hardly in the film. It's also beautifully shot, albeit only partially filmed in Russia - the Russian Culture Minister had previously been the a minor diplomat in France until he was expelled because of Farewell's information and both convinced Carion's first choice Sergei Makovetsky not to appear in the film to avoid appearing a traitor to the Russian people and blocked shooting in Russia, although Carion did covertly shoot a few scenes on key locations by pretending to shoot a Coca Cola commercial. Plus ca change...
Universal's UK Blu-ray sadly has no extras (the non-English friendly French Blu-ray includes a director's commentary and documentary) but offers an excellent widescreen transfer with burned-in English subtitles for the French and Russian dialogue and optional additional hard of hearing subtitles for the English dialogue, something of a rarity on foreign films.