The Digital Fix already houses a review of Farewell, courtesy of Noel Megahey, from a few months back. That piece was more positive than my own take and in-depth to the point where I feel the need only to add a few thoughts below. As such you may wish to read Noel’s thoughts here before proceeding with this review…
With his most recent features writer/director Christian Carion appears to be setting himself up as a maker of populist takes on historical tales. 2005’s Joyeux Noël depicted the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western front during the First World War and was subsequently picked up by Sony for distribution in the US and the UK. His latest film, Farewell (L’Affaire Farewell), is a Cold War thriller set in 1981, released over here via Universal, and again finds its basis in factual material. Adapted from Serguei Kostine’s 1997 book Bonjour Farewell, this is the story of Vladimir Vetrov, loosely translated into cinematic form, a KGB analyst who had grown disillusioned with the Soviets and thus passed on sensitive information to the French. It’s a less familiar tale than that of Joyeux Noël - indeed, it only came to light courtesy of Kostine - but one that’s told through familiar means: part espionage thriller, part odd couple character piece.
The couple are Emir Kusturica in the Vetrov role, here re-named Sergei Grigoriev, and Guillaume Canet as Pierre Froment, the French engineer in Moscow who becomes his contact. Interestingly both men are played by directors, Kusturica of course being responsible for Time of the Gypsies, Underground and so on, whilst Canet scripted and helmed the polished Tell No One (although in his case he is arguably better known as an actor thanks to roles in The Beach and Love Me If You Dare amongst others). I’ve often felt that filmmakers bring something of their own films when they appear in the works of others (let’s call it ‘the Polanski effect’) and so it is with Kusturica and Canet. The former is intimidating, in possession of certain rough edges and, at one point, referred to as “a dreamer”. The latter is quiet, straightforward and straight-laced. An odd couple indeed.
Much of the pleasure of Farewell derives from the pair. Despite the seriousness of their characters’ situation, their moments together nonetheless possess a slight humour that’s particularly engaging. For a film that consists, predominantly, of one-on-one dialogue scenes it’s also particularly welcome and a sure sign of Carion’s populist touch. At times it can come off a little wonky - as when Fred Ward’s Ronald Reagan and David Soul’s presidential aide share a couple of viewings of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - or a little too heavy-handed - as when we cut from a Moscow montage set to a Russian male choir to Canet’s car as he listens to Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. But for the most part he keeps things swift, sharp and just a little below serious if need be. Helping him out (as well as the performers already mentioned - and Soul in particular deserves an unexpected nod) are Clint Mansell’s simple, effective score and the slick but never invasive cinematography of Walther van den Ende (Daens, The Eighth Day, No Man’s Land), further elements of a solid piece of filmmaking that does its job and is quite content at that.
Universal have released Farewell onto Blu-ray and DVD, in both cases without extras. For review purposes they supplied a DVD check disc. In this instance we find a dual-layered disc and a perfectly pleasing presentation: original aspect ratio, DD5.1 soundtrack, no signs of damage or issues with the transfer. The only element that may prompt issues is the fact that the subtitles are burnt into the image as opposed to disc generated (and there’s no reason to presume that the Blu-ray will be any different). Otherwise the picture and sound quality is more than acceptable - just as we would expect from such a new production. However, the complete lack of extras is somewhat disappointing given the historical scope of the film at hand, not to mention its status, to my mind, as a ‘good’ film rather than a ‘great’ one. Surely it needs something in addition to make the disc worthwhile beyond a potential rental prospect.