In 1981, Colonel Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) of the KGB, disenchanted with Russia's failing Communist ideal, decides he is going to make a difference. Discreetly, he makes contact with Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a married French engineer working in Moscow and little by little passes on documents to him that contain information which would constitute the most important Cold War espionage operation known to date. During a period of two years, French President Francois Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) and US chief Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) personally vet the documents supplied by this source in Moscow, to whom the French Secret Service give the codename 'Farewell'.
Review by Louise Keller:
There is much that is wonderful about this riveting political thriller set at the end of the Cold War, so it is worth overlooking some of the confusing storytelling. It's a complex story about French poetry-loving KGB official Vladimir Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica), who chooses an unlikely ally in a mild-mannered French engineer working at the Moscow embassy to transmit his information to the West. Disillusioned with Communism, this is his bid to 'change the world'. Joyeux Noel director Christian Carion has adapted Serguei Kostine's book with passion, sensitivity and ballast to take us back to the early 80s and involve us in a thriller with large scale political and personal elements.
The story begins in April 1981 and the Borg McEnroe Wimbledon finals is playing on the television in the home of Guillaume Canet's Pierre Froment. In the course of a few days, Froment goes from his normal life at the Embassy and happy domestic situation with his wife and two young children to being inadvertently recruited as a spy. Much of the film concerns the relationship between Froment and Grigoriev, whose lies result in explosive issues in their personal lives. The human side of their predicament is never better shown than in the scenes when Gregoriev asks Froment to bring him a 'Johnny Walkman' and the music of 'Kean' (Queen) for his son. But it is the French poem Froment gives Grigoriev telling the story about the wolf who dies in silence to protect his cubs that embodies the crux of the film's philosophy.
Emir Kusturica fills the screen both physically and by the impact his imposing presence leaves as the traitor with principles, codenamed 'Farewell', while Guillaume Canet is well cast as the everyman drawn into an untenable situation. The events involving world leaders François Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) and Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward, especially effective) elevate the story to its relevance, although the palpable tension that we should feel throughout is patchy.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It is one of the great untold* stories of recent history: high ranked Russian KGB officer decides that Russia needs to be saved from its destructive Communist Party path. He single handed alters the course of history by passing secrets to the West. The quiet, calm and deliberate nature
of how he does this is reflected in the film - which may frustrate some people. There is none of the usual spy thriller stuff, albeit there are plenty of tense moments. There are no simple black and white characters, albeit there are conflicting agendas. There is not a James Bond figure in sight, albeit his name is mentioned in an ironic sense, and there is a torture scene or two. (*Untold in cinema, at least.)
Emir Kusturica, the larger than life Bosnian filmmaker (his film Underground  won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) and actor makes a powerful impression as Colonel Grigoriev, intelligent and likeable, noble and flawed all rolled into one tangible human being. A man with a mission - a mission he alone understands. It's a character study as much as anything, and the plot details sometimes get fuzzy.
The popular and busy Guillaume Canet (Tell No-One, Hell, etc) is excellent as Pierre Froment the slightly naïve and totally reluctant instrument who is pushed into playing the second most important role in changing the course of Russian Communist history. He combines the innocence of a man out of his depth with the determination of a man wanting to do the right thing - and paying the price for it in his marriage.
Also effective is the lovely Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall, The Reader, Control) as Jessica, Pierre's wife, largely kept in the dark but terrified for her young children by the risks to which Pierre is exposing them. Lara has a difficult role and she does it superbly.
Olekseii Gorbunov, Willem Dafoe and Niels Arestrup provide splendid support, and the production looks marvellous, authentic and moody. Perhaps a little more economical writing and editing would have tightened the film to its benefit and strengthened the central story, which has less impact than it should, given the impact it had on the world. We are told about that impact, rather than shown it in visual terms.
Published first in the Sun-Herald