This tale of a truly fascinating but little-known espionage operation is told with panache and a dynamic central pairing.
The year is 1981 and the US is deeply entrenched in its war of attrition with the USSR. In the White House, President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) watches The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and broods as John Wayne’s shadow casts a pall over James Stewart’s despatch of the titular villain. If the country over which Reagan has sway is the strident Wayne, who then should play Stewart’s blustering intellectual, and who should assume Lee Marvin’s role as the outlaw?
Meanwhile, in Moscow, KGB colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica) has grown so disenchanted with the Communist Party that he is prepared to feed the French and American governments crucial intelligence about Soviet espionage. He does so via French engineer Pierre Froment (a fractious, caustic Guillaume Canet), and thus the 'Farewell Affair' is born.
Director Christian Carion exposes the eponymous affair with great elegance. The Cold War at the heart of the film is reflected in the gradual thawing of narrative as it drives its protagonists inexorably forwards. The dialectic between the West and the Soviet Bloc is epitomised by the diametrical opposition of Gregoriev and Froment, who make for an oddly touching double act.
They are bound together by the same secrets and lies that drive their respective families away from them into enmity. Even their homes become defiled; places of surveillance in which they are spied upon by mistresses, cleaning ladies, wives and sons. Ultimately they become as blanched a part of history as the snow that blankets the stark Russian tundra in which Gregoriev will meet his foreshadowed fate.
Even Reagan is turned from subject to object; transmitted and transmuted until he is merely another form of reportage, alienated from the action like John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon.
All that remains is the memory of Emir Kusturica’s sallow, hungry face – his country’s reflection seen through a glass darkly; national disillusionment writ large in his hulking, beleaguered frame.
The director of Merry Christmas broaches the spy hard genre. Could this be this year’s The Lives of Others?
Carion is a purveyor of extraordinary material, intertwining historical context, strong characterisation and storytelling with a steady hand that thrills and freezes the heart in equal measure.
The tale of a truly fascinating but little-known espionage operation is told with panache and a dynamic central pairing.