Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

It's 1981 and a Russian KGB agent decides to change the world.

Disenchanted with the Communist system, Colonel Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) starts syphoning confidential documents to Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a French businessman working in Moscow. Froment’s boss passes the information to the French intelligence agency DST, who bring the gold dust to newly elected President Mitterrand (Phillippe Magnan).

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The authorities are astounded by the depth to which Russian espionage appears to have infiltrated Western technological and industrial institutions, garnering everything from White House secrets to the latest space shuttle designs. As Grigoriev, now codenamed ‘Farewell’, draws near to divulging the full ‘List X’ of Soviet spies in the West, Mitterrand shares the info with President Reagan (Fred Ward).

The revelations knock the Oval Office back on its heels, but provide the two politically opposed powers with an uneasily shared opportunity to smash the Soviet spy network. Yet when the CIA mount a disinformation campaign in retaliation and the Russian double agents are exposed, it is only a matter of time before Grigoriev and his Froment pipeline are discovered.

Grigoriev and Froment are fictional, but their characters draw upon real-life KGB informant Vladimir Vetrov and his anonymous French associates, Vetrov’s revelations becoming known as the Farewell Affair. He has since been credited for significantly hindering the Soviet Union’s underhand technological advances, leading Reagan to push his Star Wars defence initiative into his Cold War enemy’s straitened face and potentially precipitating perestroika. Changing the world, indeed.

Director and co-scribe Christian Carion, adapting from Serguei Kostine’s book, smartly distills the global Cold War politicking into Froment and Grigoriev’s tense relationship. The Frenchman is anxiously, excitedly out of his depth from the off, risking his livelihood and the welfare of his family when he realises that he could help change things on a far grander scale than he first could see. Conversely, the Russian knows all too well how his disclosures could influence his country, but he wants change so that his stroppy teenage son can live a freer life than his. He eschews offers of defection for his secrets, asking only for a Walkman with bootleg Queen tapes for his son and French poetry books for himself.

The leads hold this duality and a prototype East-West friendship together with compelling performances that propel the story throughout. Canet frets with nervy, conflicted loyalties that harden into troubled principles while Kusturica glowers with heavy-browed ideals and sensitivity. They carry with them naive hope and a restless appetite for something new. Some of the powers-that-be, in comparison, are more one-dimensional fixtures of the spy thriller genre, illustrating the overt paranoia of the Cold War age. That said, Fred Ward’s understated Ronald Reagan is more on the money than he’s likely to see credit for.

The US-based machinations are unfussy in their nondescript darkened rooms and night-time locales, but Carion realises the early Eighties Soviet environment superbly. From the clothes to the cars, concrete and home furnishings, Grigoriev’s surroundings convincingly place us in the era, helping Farewell to portray a familiar yet very different time in modern history.

The film's grim opening in a snowy Siberian forest sets a dour, foreboding tone that remains through to the downbeat conclusion. This is perhaps inevitable, given the punitive, ignoble consequences that befell Vetrov. It casts a deliberate sallowness over the naive Froment’s deepening predicament and Grigoriev’s precarious, thankless idealism. So much so that, while they may have prompted greater political change, Grigoriev especially seems such a doomed man from the outset that any ill-fated outcome that befalls him feels more plainly expected than tragically inevitable. To my mind this loosens the dark tensions that Carion weaves together towards the end.

Woven they still are, though, and not just within the conventions of the genre. Carion was denied permission to film in Russia and suspected the shoot was being 'observed'. Renowned actor Sergueï Makovestsky withdrew from the Grigoriev role after the Russian ambassador to Paris hassled him for playing "this bastard character." Later in Cannes, the estimable Kusturica was rebuked for taking on the role. If, 30 years on, Farewell portrays a time of political, national and personal evolution, perhaps a final conclusion is that at some levels change comes but slowly.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2011
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A spy finds himself in danger when he decides to leak documents that could lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
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Director: Christian Carion

Starring: Guillaume Canet, Emir Kurstica, Willem Dafoe

Year: 2009

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: France

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