In the movies, spies are usually action heroes – dodging bullets, performing preposterous stunts and escapes and generally behaving like 007. But the French thriller Farewell (L’Affaire Farewell) portrays espionage as a far more mundane – and transfixing – business.
Based on little-known events of the early 1980s, the movie recounts the relationship between Pierre (Guillaume Canet), a French engineer living in Moscow with his wife and kids, and Sergei (Emir Kusturica), a high-ranking KGB colonel who grew disenchanted with the Brezhnev regime and started leaking top-secret documents to the West.
Against his will, Pierre becomes the delivery man between Sergei and the French intelligence agency DST, transporting highly sensitive documents that French President Francois Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) shared directly with Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) in order to ease the growing tension between their countries.
Director Christian Carion (Joyeux Nöel) bends historical events here and there in order to keep the focus on his protagonists (played, in a neat bit of casting, by accomplished directors) and the effects their actions have on their home lives. The famously wild Kusturica (Underground, Black Cat White Cat) is terrific as the towering, patriotic Russian, a complex man who believes in the communist dream but not in the direction his government has taken it. Sergei’s tempestuous relationship with his rebellious teenage son, as well as his affair with a KGB translator (Dina Korzun), are folded neatly into the plot.
Canet (who directed the taut thriller Tell No One) is equally good as a man in way over his head, struggling to balance the wishes of his wife, who fears the consequences Pierre’s actions will have on their family, with a sense of duty and obligation. Only Ward’s turn as Reagan proves a distraction, a bad impression of an iconic leader better suited for Saturday Night Live.
Farewell’s story is fascinating, explaining, among other things, how the creation of Reagan’s Star Wars defense initiative signaled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. But the movie earns its tension and suspense the old-fashioned way: By making you care about its characters, who live in a recognizably real world in which a truck’s idling engine or a document inspection at a border crossing are much more nerve-wracking than the wildest James Bond car chase.
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Emir Kusturica, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Dina Korzun, Fred Ward, Willem Dafoe, Philippe Magnan.
Director: Christian Carion.
Screenwriter: Eric Raynaud.
Producers: Bertrand Faivre, Philip Boëfard.
A NeoClassics Films release. Running time: 112 minutes. In French, Russian and English with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief violence, sexual situations. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.