Following in the hallowed footsteps of le Carré, Dominic Cooke’s The Courier is a smart, sophisticated Cold War espionage tale that proves facts can sometimes be more fantastical than fiction.
As the true-to-life film opens, unassuming English businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself very much the right man in the wrong place at the right time. The year is 1960 and, as the opening title card suggests, the world is on the edge of “imminent destruction”. Therefore, the engineer and salesman’s frequent Eastern European business trips make him the perfect recruit for a Western Secret Service desperate to get behind the Iron Curtain. Despite his lack of training or specialist skills, Wynne is sent to make contact with Soviet intelligence agent and would-be defector, General Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). The two men forge a solid partnership that allows them to funnel crucial information about the Cuban Missile Crisis to MI-6 and the CIA—changing both the course of their lives and the world. It’s one of the most important spy stories the modern world has ever seen but, despite that, it remains largely unknown.
The Ties That Bind
The friendship that blossoms between these two men and the increasing loyalty they feel for one another gives the film its heart — but it’s also what provides it with its tension. Wynne and Penkovsky bond over a love of alcohol and family, but quickly form a platonic codependency out of necessity. They are both risking everything to assist the other and every move one makes affects the other too. Wynne is very much an amateur in a world of mostly expert men and women and his bravery in the face of all that is astonishing but no less important is the great risks posed to Penkovsky and his family.
Cumberbatch embodies the Englishman perfectly, losing himself in the ordinary man who chose to do extraordinary things. Likewise, Ninidze is sublime as the Soviet war hero pulled between country, family, and honour. The seasoned Georgian actor communicates Penkovsky’s resolve and terror in the simplest but most impressive of way, and his chemistry with his co-lead is mesmerizing. Both Cumberbatch and Ninidze go through an impressive physical transformation toward the end of the film, as their two characters are placed in the most desperate circumstances, and the resulting dramatic climax is a tour-de-force for both.
The Courier manages to avoid the spy thriller trap of faceless, nameless spies complicating the narrative. We do get a sense of the usual secret service machinations happening in the background but only inasmuch as their decisions affect the safety of the General and his English courier. Though the film feels very much a snapshot of a specific moment in time, thanks to on-point period detail and set design, it’s not hard to see why filmmakers thought now the perfect time to re-tell this Cold War story. Given today’s political climate, a reminder of the power of the individual and of partnership is a welcome one.
If there is fault to be had with the film, it’s that the excellent women in the cast don’t get more screen time. What little time they do get is filled to the brim with talent and character, especially with the excellent Jessie Buckley as Greville’s increasingly unsure wife Sheila and with Mariya Mironova as Oleg’s loving but fearful wife Vera. Though the film’s runtime services the story well, it is hard not to wish for one or two more scenes with each. Buckley and Cumberbatch play off each other particularly well so if we can’t get more of them together here, perhaps a future project?
Overall , Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor manage to stay focused on the realities of what it means to risk your life in a secret war and the burdens those involve carry with them. Namely, the casualties made of family and relationships, but also of the bonds that grow stronger under pressure. With two talented leads, The Courier accomplishes just that and, in doing so, proves a fine addition to the genre.
The Courier is now available on digital platforms and VOD.