Cambridge Film Festival Review: Farewell (L’affaire Farewell)

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The Pitch: Spies, like us.

The Review: The Cold War has been such effective fodder for the movie industry over the years, it’s maybe a little surprising that there haven’t been more explorations of the latter years of that period on the big screen. As it transpires, there was more than a little French involvement in the events that triggered the fall of the Soviet machine, and so it’s the French that have brought the tale to the cinema, an adaptation of Serguei Kostine’s book Bonjour Farewell, itself inspired by the true events surrounding Vladimir Vetrov, a high ranking KGB official. The movie details the actions of a fictional character, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), based on Vetrov, and his relationship with a French engineer working in Moscow, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet).

Gregoriev’s unlikely relationship with Froment is kept secret from Froment’s wife, who fears the potential consequences of such involvement, and seemingly from everyone else in Russia as well. The wealth of important information being passed to Froment has soon given François Mitterand, the then French president, enough leverage to get the attention of his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan. As the secrets mount, Mitterand and Reagan work out how to exploit the relationship to their best advantage, but they are to a certain extent at the mercy of the idealistic Gregoriev, not involved for money or the possibility of defection and so keeping Froment’s involvement to keep the flow of information undiscovered becomes crucial.

The movie by its very nature has a very international cast, with Canet and Kusturica both very effective in their roles, and support from such American luminaries as Fred Ward as Reagan, Willem Dafoe and David Soul portraying the Americans. There’s also a good selection of other international actors with familar faces, including Alexandra Maria Lara as Froment’s wife and Ingebora Dapkunaite as Gregoriev’s. Family tensions on both sides are as much an integral part of the story as the grander political machinations, especially as both men have more to hide at home than they do in their respective spying roles, it would seem. The only slightly false note is Ward as Reagan, who never quite convinces with his impersonation or his acting, but the remainder of the cast are all very solid and help to keep things simmering.

Unfortunately simmering is the tone for most of the movie. There’s a fantastic shot early on when Gregoriev is first revealed in the back of Froment’s car; such moments run the risk of being heavy clichés in movies such as this, but here the direction is wonderfully effective. It’s all the more frustrating that this moment proves to be almost a high point in terms of dramatic tension and direction. Carion, who also co-wrote, may have been a little inhibited by the unwillingness of the Russians to allow filming of a story of such a traitorous figure in their history, but somehow he never gets the movie out of third gear, even at the end when characters have to make their moves. It’s a fascinating historical document and worthy of watching on that basis alone, but it errs slightly too much towards drama when the potential was here for a cracking thriller.

Why see it at the cinema: It feels worthy and weighty enough of the big screen, and there are just a few moments that will be more effective in a darkened cinema.

The Score: 7/10

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