The Courier tells the true story of a British businessman brought in by MI6 to penetrate the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Together the man and the Russian source leak classified intelligence to the Allies. But can they prevent WWIII without being caught?
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a British businessman pulled into Cold War-era spycraft. His mission? To make contact with source codename Ironbark (the original title of the film when it was released at Sundance last year) soviet official Oleg Penkovsky played by Merab Ninidze. This setup delivers one of the best performances of Cumberbatch’s for my money, and a great slow-burn of a spy thriller.
Cumberbatch’s Wynne isn’t the smartest man in the room, nor is he the most compelling, charming, handsome, or intelligent. No, he’s just a businessman with no connections to the British government and that alone makes him the right choice for the job. It also means Cumberbatch is playing a role outside of his usual brooding genius/Superman (Dr. Strange, Khan, Turing, and of course Sherlock) and that makes him all the better to watch. He’s just a guy who makes deals, is distant from his family out of necessity, and is trying to keep it all together. As the mission heats up and the potential for nuclear war looms he unravels a bit, though he never truly breaks, still we see a normal human.
If you’re not up to snuff on your history, the story told in The Courier will genuinely surprise you. You know in broad strokes how the events played out, that the Soviet Missile Crisis was a thing and didn’t turn into a nuclear holocaust, if not the why or how of it, and that make the story told here absolutely potent as you follow our leads in their cloak and dagger work, minutely timed handoffs, and escaping from the clutches of Soviet spies just in the nick of time.
There is something particularly impactful of the final act of the film, in which the characters must lie to each other out of necessity. So while their spoken words aren’t true (and the audience knows it so long as they’re following along) it’s up to their emotions, however little they’re able to express at the moment, to reveal to each other and us the audience exactly what information is truly being shared. It makes the audience have to work through the moment ourselves, pulling us deeper into these exchanges as we try to puzzle out what is truly being said, and what is being thrown out.
That’s a long way of saying Cumberbatch and Ninidze do a phenomenal job of conveying meaning without words. There’s another scene that shows similar power when to avoid a potential bug and spies listening in, they crank a radio up and talk to each other — the audience can’t hear them but we see the two of them communicating. The Courier does this kind of thing really well.
This is director Dominic Cooke’s second film after 2017’s On Chesil Beach (though he has more experience in the theater), from a script by Tom O’Connor, whose largest credit was 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, before that a Bruce Willis action film, Fire with Fire from 2012. I mention this only to draw attention to something that is a pleasant reminder of the breadth of the film — this is no all-star cast, star-studded project top to bottom from producers to wunderkind writer and megastar director and so on. It’s a good flick from folks finding a groove in their careers, or just getting started, and it all comes together to deliver a perfectly decent spy thriller.
I don’t mean this to be damning with faint praise, it’s far from it, I was truly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. And after this past year, it was a good reminder that there are other movies out there than your long-awaited summer blockbusters and award season fare. After watching The Courier, I can’t wait to watch every single one of them!
The Courier opens only in theaters on Friday, March 19th.