Following The Imitation Game, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy and The Mauritanian, Brit Benedict Cumberbatch returns to his drama roots in this historical spy flick, which is based on the incredible true story of Greville Wynne. Despite considerable release delays due to the pandemic, the tense thriller is finally hitting UK cinemas this week, spotlighting the remarkable self-sacrifice and bravery made to prevent the Cuban missile crisis.
Directed by Dominic Cooke, The Courier centres on the unassuming British salesman Wynne (Cumberbatch) who finds himself roped into working for the CIA and MI6 in the early 1960s. His frequent business trips to Eastern Europe prove the perfect foil for him to act as an intermediary, ferrying sensitive military information between the CIA and their Soviet military informant Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), codenamed “Ironbark.” His mission is to penetrate the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War in the attempts to avert a potential World War III.
It’s surprising that this significant co-operative espionage mission, set in a hugely pivotal moment in the Cold War, has taken this long to be adapted for the big screen. Cooke rightly resists the urge to lean into a fully-fledged spy outing, instead opting for an endearing tale of unlikely friendship and courage, evoking a similar nature of a John le Carré novel. While it takes a little time for the film to truly find its momentum, the pacing firmly clicks into place once the bond between Wynne and Greville develops and their rendezvous in Moscow become more clandestine. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, this old-fashioned period spy thriller ramps up the suspense in pivotal moments, evolving from a fairly conventional affair to a tense and emotional final act.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect actor for the true-life drama, excelling in another hugely transformative role, portraying a real historical figure that he’s so well known for. With no prior espionage experience and the threat of imprisonment constantly looming, Cumberbatch’s turn from everyman and amateurish messenger to a driven undercover contact is hugely impressive, risking it all to try and help his friend. His shaven-headed and gaunt appearance during Wynne’s imprisonment embodies the struggle and hardship the two faced, risking their lives for the greater good. However, it’s Ninidze who truly steals the show as the one of the most valuable Soviet sources ever recruited. He superbly evokes a restrained horror, clearly realising the threat of Nikita Khrushchev and his drive for imminent nuclear war. “Maybe we’re only two people, but this is how things change,” Penkovsky says, conveying so much hope knowing how much his sacrifice will likely cost him.
The film also benefits from a strong supporting cast which includes The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Emmy-award winning Rachel Brosnahan as the glamorous CIA handler, who eventually gets much more to do in a gripping third act mission. However Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley is somewhat underused in comparison, relegated to Wynne’s long-suffering wife who’s often kept in the dark and lead to think her husband is once again cheating on her.
Predominantly shot using widescreen angles in opulent restaurants, hotels and theatres, contrasting with the dark underpasses and cold streets of early 60s Soviet Moscow, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures a dark and foreboding Russia, with the threat of someone listening in ever looming. It’s all about the classically dark trilby hats, sharp suits and trench coats as Keith Madden opts for a suave and muted costume design, while Golden Globe Award nominee Abel Korzeniowski’s Waltz-inspired score evokes a classic feel perfect for the old school cat-and-mouse chase.
Whilst the politics and action of the Cold War takes a surprising backseat, stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze elevate The Courier from a serviceable espionage drama to an emotionally engaging and slow-burn outing.
The Courier hits UK cinemas on 13 August 2021