Cineworld Glasgow, 29.04.11

Based on true events leading up to the end of the Cold War, Farewell follows the story of Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a Soviet in Moscow, who begins supplying information to the West, using Pierre Froment  (Guillaume Canet), a French engineer, to smuggle out secret Soviet intelligence and crucially a list of high-ranking Soviet spies working in the West, the revealing of whom contributes to perestroika and the thawing of relations between the two superpowers.

The film works best when it concentrates on being a terrific spy thriller.  Scenes of suspense such  as Gregoriev secretly copying information in his bosses office, or of Froment becoming increasingly paranoid, and his eventual fleeing with his family, towards the border as they realise they have been compromised, are where the film excels.  Equally, the film works as a drama, as we see the effect on both Gregoriev and Froment’s wives and children as they recklessly risk their safety in order to supply the information to the West.  Both Kusturica and Canet, more famous as directors these days, give strong performances in the lead roles and there is neat support from Alexandra Maria Lara as Jessica Froment, Niels Arestrup as French agent Vallier and Willem Defoe as the head of the CIA, Feeney, who gets to deliver a neat twist at the end.

Less successful are the film’s attempts to show how these events act in the wider, political aspects of the world.  It is never made totally clear in what way the outing of the Soviet agents actually precipitates the demise of the Soviet Union.  In fact, if anything, the film suggests they played a very small part in the larger scheme.  Perhaps if the filmmakers had concentrated purely on the spy thriller aspect of the story it would have carried more gravitas.  Secondly, and perhaps a greater crime, are the attempts to represent the real life politicians involved.  Fred Ward, as US president Ronald Reagan, delivers a caricature, playing on worn stereotypes of Reagan sitting in the White House watching old Hollywood Westerns, seemingly unable to grasp events around him, while David Soul, as his physician Hutton, sits next to him looking askance.  While not a great supporter of Reagan, this portrayal seems overly simplistic and perhaps even cruel.  Philippe Magnan as French President Mitterrand is equally under-whelming, and a cameo by Vsevolod Shilovsky as Gorbachev in one scene seems like a needless diversion.  Also misjudged is Gregoriev’s son, Igor’s, fascination with Western culture.  Initially providing reasonable motivation and some comic light-heartedness as Gregoriev struggles to comprehend ‘Sony Walkman’ and the British band Queen.  However, when the film stops to have Igor give a karaoke performance, intercut with footage of Queen and Freddy Mercury in concert, it has taken the symbolism a step too far.  If intended as a comic moment it falls exceptionally flat, as with the snippets of Reagan.  Or maybe I’m influenced by a personal dislike of Queen! 

Fortunately, these quibbles aren’t enough to de-rail the central espionage plot, and the reveal at the end goes some way to redeeming the portrayal of the Americans – they weren’t all incompetent after all.  Christian Carion directs with a nice sense of gritty realism, in the style of the early Harry Palmer films of the 1960’s, rather than the James Bond series.  There is also an effective and simple score from Clint Mansell that adds to the brooding atmosphere.

A solid European spy thriller, worth seeking out.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

P.S. Incidently, I would like to thank the projectionist at Cineworld, who managed to top their usual poor standards by presenting a trailer, not only upside down, but also with sound and vision running backwards.  A truely unique experience – I have no idea what film it was for!


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