Cold War spy games are seen through the prism of family stress in Farewell, based on the real-life case of a Soviet mole who leaked top-secret documentation of a large industrial-espionage network to the West in 1981. It’s too bad that the up-close-and-personal angle is frequently banal and takes screen time away from the intricate, deadly game of cat and mouse, which is the victim of some patchy exposition in Eric Raynaud’s screenplay. A disillusioned KGB colonel (Emir Kusturica), code-named “Farewell” by French intelligence, disapproves of the nervous, occasionally bumbling Moscow-based engineer (Guillaume Canet) who serves as his contact, but grudgingly soldiers on in passing his revelatory files to the amateur, while rejecting invitations to defect: “My country needs me. I can change the world.”
Director Christian Carion hops from chambers of power in Paris, the Kremlin, and Washington (where Fred Ward’s President Reagan takes time out from his anti-communist crusade to muse on the “point of view” motif in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) to the domiciles of his two cloak-and-dagger principals, where the mounting danger of their subterfuge is exacting a personal toll. The French engineer’s terrified wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) begs him to burn the Farewell dossier and end his involvement before their children are endangered; his turncoat source is, more melodramatically, dealing with his wife’s discovery of his infidelity with a co-worker, and his “decadent Western music”-loving teenage son’s resentment; lying, the kid sneers at Dad, “is not just your job, it’s your nature.”
While not as outrageously sentimental as the Eastern-bloc soap opera The Lives of Others, Farewell has a surfeit of stilted dialogue (“I live in lies and solitude”) and a shortage of thrills—not only the mindless ones of spy-fantasy potboilers, but the cunningly balanced, humane suspense of John Le Carre’s fictions (and their most successful film and TV adaptations). Carion’s chief asset in dramatizing this episode in the Soviet Union’s decline is the performance of Kusturica, the Serbian filmmaking wunderkind of the ‘80s and ‘90s, whose shambling, simultaneously idealistic and gloomy characterization of the renegade spook would shine even more brightly in a crisper drama. Canet’s geeky greenhorn is built mostly on moral ambivalence and anxiety-steeped reaction shots, and is left to angrily confront the ice-blooded realpolitik of the Free World after the Soviets’ net is tightened around Farewell. Told by Willem Dafoe, portraying a mightily restrained version of lawless C.I.A. director William Casey, that an occasional “bone” has to be thrown to the Evil Empire, the engineer is carefully advised to accept “a life without problems,” one where torture and execution are not part of everyday ethical calculus.