Farewell (L’affaire Farewell) is mostly a riveting Cold War espionage film, with an unfortunately off kilter secondary story that doesn’t belong in the same movie. The main story is based on fact: a senior KGB colonel becomes dissatisfied with the stagnant corruption of the Soviet Union and decides to bring about revolutionary change by leaking Soviet secrets to the West. To avoid detection, he chooses to pass the secrets in plain sight to an amateur civilian, a midlevel French corporate manager in Moscow.
The Russian lead is played by Serbian director Emir Kusturica, who gave good acting performances in The Good Thief and The Widow of St. Pierre. Kusturica is outstanding here as the canny and world-weary master spy, and he carries the film when he is on-screen.
The French lead is played by French director Guillaume Canet, who directed one of my recent favorites, Tell No One, and played a villain in that movie. Tell No One is on my list of 10 Great Movies You Missed in the 2000s. Niels Arestrup (from The Prophet, this week’s DVD choice) is excellent as the French security chief.
The spycraft, the complex Francophile character played by Kusturica (code-named “Farewell”), his struggling family life and the attempts by the amateur Frenchman to keep his head bobbing above water combine for a compelling story.
So far, so good. But then the film tries to tell another story – the geopolitical impact of Farewell’s leaks. And the tone of the film switches from the serious spy tale with serious consequences to its main characters to not-so-dark comedy. Suddenly, we see Fred Ward broadly playing Ronald Reagan as if in a Saturday Night Live skit, Philippe Magnan as a somber, one-note Francois Mitterand and Willem Dafoe lacking any kind of gravitas as a CIA chieftain. Fortunately, although this mini-farce distracts from a good film, Kusturica’s character and his performance maintain the movie’s worthiness to see.