Farewell (France, 2009)

I was one of the many many people who saw this film at its Monday festival screening. Lots of familiar faces in the audience. Embassy Theatre was heaving. It’s a nice cinema always, but especially when it’s heaving.

So: this is a “based on a true story” of prominent 80s KGB informant Vladimir Vetrov, who passed secrets to the West that enabled the discovery and complete dismantling of substantial USSR infiltration of Western technology programmes. (Flicking through webpages on the subject, somewhere I read “the West was basically in a technological arms race with itself” because as soon as a breakthrough happened, the Russians caught up thanks to their network.)

It was enjoyable, if somewhat undisciplined, and (as is apparent from just a cursory search of Wikipedia) substantially divergent from what really happened. The filmmakers make no apologies for this – they renamed their informant for a reason. But it does make some of the familial relationships that drive the film feel a bit empty, knowing they were contrived for the film rather than summarised for it.

It’s a French film so it features men having affairs, a bearded protagonist, and lots of unscrupulous Americans. (One of the Americans is Willem Defoe, hurray!) There are actors in the roles of Mitterand, Reagan and Gorbachev, who verbalise the impact of the passed information. They were all fine in the roles of such well-known public figures, but I think the film would have been stronger if it found another way to show those aspects of the story. The strongest elements are the personal relationships around the spies – I was actually reminded of Donnie Brasco, a great filmic study of the familial costs of a life of deceit.

It’s a bit too broadly played to be fully satisfying, and knowing how far it was from the truth feels like a let-down to me, even though it made no claims to be anything other than a dramatic story that echoed some of the things that happened. But it was engaging and often genuinely suspenseful (although it pulled the same suspense trick twice for two of its tensest scenes, which felt like scriptwriting laziness to me). Above all, it’s very watchable. I had a good time watching it; I think most everyone would.

Plus, Freddie Mercury in white pants cameo as part of some Queen concert footage. On the giant Embassy screen… well. Those pants were tight.