Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama “The Courier” tells the incredible true story of businessman turned British spy Greville Wynne. An electrical engineer by trade, the unassuming Wynne became a key MI6 asset who played a vital part in securing intelligence from the Soviet Union including secret documents which helped bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similar to 2015’s “Bridge of Spies”, this is a story of a non-combatant willing to put his life on the line for the greater good. And like that Steven Spielberg picture, “The Courier” works thanks to its immersive storytelling, strong supporting work, and a terrific lead performance.
Written by Tom O’Connor, “The Courier” sets itself in the early 1960’s where nuclear tensions between Russia and the United States were at a boil. It was a time when many people feared the world was on the brink of destruction. In the movie we hear radio broadcasts relaying instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. We see newspaper headlines telling of new fallout shelters being built by the U.S. government. These are just some of the period touches that help immerse us in the uneasiness and uncertainty of the setting.
Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a knockout lead performance playing Greville, a simple salesman who is recruited by a British MI6 agent (Angus Wright) and an operative with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan). They want the reluctant Greville to establish business dealings in the Soviet Union while connecting with Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a senior Soviet intelligence officer with top-secret information he desperately wants to get to the West. Much of the film highlights the unexpected bond that forms between Greville and Oleg – a genuine friendship built on the shaky foundation of trust and mutual respect.
Greville’s ‘mission‘ seems simple enough at first – set up sales meetings, wine and dine potential business partners, and make the occasional stop at the Russian ballet. But when the agents and Oleg want Greville to be their go-between and smuggle secret Soviet documents and weapons plans out of country, the danger level of his work skyrockets. Meanwhile at home his wife Sheila (a wonderful Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of her husband’s frequent trips to the USSR. It doesn’t help that he’s had an “indiscretion” in the past. Now she notices him suddenly into exercise and scurrying off on business trips with little explanation. So naturally it’s easier to believe her husband is having an affair than working as a secret agent for the Crown.
Cumberbatch has the perfect makeup for these types of roles. He effortlessly captures the timid self-effacing everyman type while also seamlessly blending into whatever period setting he’s playing in. Here he brings all of that but with some extra intensity that especially shows up in the final 30 minutes. But in many ways Penkovsky is the heart of the movie. Ninidze’s performance reveals a man of deep conviction who loves his family, mourns for his country, and understands both are in jeopardy. Therefore he feels obligated to act in order to save what is dearest to him. Buckley never gives a bad performance and here she provides us a deceptively potent emotional attachment to the story. I also really enjoyed Brosnahan. I wish she had more to do but she’s great with what she is given.
If I have any gripes it’s that in some ways “The Courier” feels like a standard issue spy thriller and it comes with the tropes to prove it. The film employs several stock techniques from the spy genre both narratively and visually. And while the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt is superb in terms of compositions, camera movements and framing, the drab desaturated colors are a bit overdone. Those things aside, “The Courier” is helped by its compelling ‘based on true events‘ element and by its deep respect for its characters who effectively pull us into this remarkable story of valor, sacrifice, and friendship. “The Courier” is now showing in theaters.
VERDICT – 4 STARS