The Courier

March 19th, 2021




File The Courier under “movies you recommend to dad when he calls you”. That’s not a slight at Dominic Cooke’s film, telling the true story of an unlikely spy, during the Cold War in 1962, and portraying this narrative in a way that makes espionage thrilling without a single shot being fired. There’s a lot of walking, talking, sitting at tables, and logistics maneuvering, along with Benedict Cumberbatch doing his often reliable work. Cumberbatch is Greville Wynne, a man who sells industrial grade machine parts all over the world. He works in England, keeping his head down, as a top-notch salesman, traveling from time to time for conferences, meeting clients for dinner, and deeply loves his wife and child. In short, nobody would expect him to be spying on the Russians. When Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides to defect from the Russian government, he becomes their inside man, and soon Wynne is being used as the front, meeting to get information on Russian nuclear missiles. The clock is ticking, spies are all around, and the threat is always high. The Courier is a solid, nuts and bolts thriller, proving once again that being a secret agent man is not always what it’s cracked up to be. It’s terrifying stuff, where the survival of the world is in the hands of a working man.

A movie like The Courier is a tough one to pin down. It’s not melodramatic enough to be Oscar-bait, in the way of The Imitation Game, although that Cumberbatch hit will undoubtedly draw comparisons. While it is also not high scale enough to be similar to what Steven Spielberg did with Bridge of Spies, which had a flare of the older Frank Capra dramas. The Courier is more mid-budget and still produces precise work. It all begins with the solid cast, lead by Cumberbatch, who has the look of a Peter Sellars-style showman, but his British accent releases a sense of cool guy under pressure. His wife Sheila is played by the “good-in-any-role” Jessie Buckley, where her character begins as the uninterested wife, but as the pressure grows, she notices that her husband is not the man he used to be. The suits in MI-6 and the CIA asking Wynne to take the risk is played by Rachel Brosnahan, constantly calculating, more than aware that she’s putting an average-Joe in charge of the lives of many. The biggest highlight is Ninidze as Penkovsky, where his performance holds the most pressure, also putting himself and his family at risk of certain death for treason.

What director Dominic Cooke and writer Tom O’Connor capture nicely is a balance between the thrilling spy stuff and the emotional human stuff. The narrative is a back and forth, between Wynne risking his life, pretending to be less than who he is, all to take pictures of nuclear sights. Easily my favorite part of The Courier is the bromance between Penkovsky and Wynne. It plays like a production of two men gambling all of their money, one has it on red, the other on black, but since they’re both risking it all, the friendship only grows, and the sadness settles in that one of them will lose. The two of them share dinner with their families, take in the opera, or enjoy too many drinks with Russian delegates. Easily the best part of The Courier is the genuine relationship created between these two, and yet there’s still exciting stuff, such as sweaty interrogations by noodling Russian generals, or the thrill of how long the cover can last.

If there are complaints to be made about The Courier, it would be that it doesn’t stay fresh, in fact the narrative may be viewed as repeating itself to some, but that is finally rectified in the third act when our two heroes are captured by the Russian government. I will not go into too much more detail (although yes, you could Google the life of Greville Wynne), but that third act of The Courier is what sold me on my appreciation for it and especially Cumberbatch. The actor obviously lost a good amount of weight for the role and the talky spy drama turns into a harrowing story of survival and courage. One half of The Courier is a talky drama where the risks ramp up and the other half is a Body of Lies style interrogation thriller. Combined together, The Courier becomes a fascinating true story to learn about.

It’s the fact that The Courier is a true story, incredibly tense from the minute Greville Wynne becomes involved as the mystery spy for British intelligence. Cooke’s direction does a nice limbo, always keeping the narrative moving, and creating a setting for the audience built with high tension. It also helps to have Benedict Cumberbatch bringing his gravitas that this person deserves. What we learn is that the lives of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky will forever be connected and their relationship is one friendship that people should be eternally grateful for. They might not have been the James Bond spies you imagined, but the heroics were that much better. The Courier is a thriller that delivers.



Written by: Leo Brady

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