Director: Dominic Cooke
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright
Written by: Tom O’Connor
Running Time: 112 mins
Release date: 13th August 2021
How many of you have ever heard of Greville Wynne? It seems incredible that in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, this man played an important part in stopping a nuclear war. Yet his name is never mentioned in history. That should change after The Courier, a slow-moving yet intriguing spy thriller based on the true events of how an ordinary man became a forgotten hero.
Oleg Penkovsky is a top Russian official who manages to pass a letter onto MI6 and the CIA, claiming that he can get his hands on information about the Russians nuclear plans. Knowing that they cannot ignore this, the secret services decide to use an ordinary businessman, Greville Wynne, to go to Russia and contact Penkovsky. Wynne is a salesman who has had connections with the East before and so is perfect to be a go-between, innocently collecting the information that Penkovsky has to offer. With a deal of defection on the table and Wynne being naive about what he is bringing to the agencies in London, the businessman finds himself getting deeper and deeper into hopefully stopping a nuclear war.
Capturing the feel and look of the 1960s, director Dominic Cooke, whose last feature was the intimate On Chesil Beach, immediately sets up the time with dark colours and moody lighting. This is a spy movie that is far from Bond or Bourne. It would be more in line with John Le Carre. Except this is based on true events and not a piece of fiction. The set designs and costumes are perfect for the time, as is the mood of the scenes. It’s a movie in which there is a lot of smoking and drinking. What Cooke has managed to do is play out this fascinating story at the right place. It never rushes, and yet it is never dull.
The script is exceptionally written by Tom O’Connor, which is a huge surprise as he is the man responsible for The Hitman’s Bodyguard and its terrible sequel. Never wordy or so complex, you have no idea what is going on; it is crisp, clean, classy, and a pleasure to the ear. Sometimes, spy dramas can be bogged down with complexities, yet this drives along with ease, and even the subplots (the suspicions of Wynne’s wife, for example) never get in the way of the main story.
What really shocks is how this story has somehow managed to slip under the radar. Wynne and Penkovsky risked everything to supply the information. Wynne, a Westerner, would be under suspicion for travelling to Moscow at the height of the Communist crisis. Amazingly, he managed to get into the country and get out without any problems. Having such a high-level Russian colonel supplying the information and using the businessman to bring Russians over to London helped. Where problems really lay is keeping all of this undercover from everyone, including Wynne’s wife, Shelia, a woman already suspicious of her husband due to his past.
For this film to work, it has to have a magnificent cast of actors. Thankfully, it does. As CIA agent Emily Donovan, Rachel Brosnahan brings toughness to a role that would probably be a sideline in most older spy films. The star of Amazon’s Marvelous Ms Maisel moves from small screen to big with ease, giving us a fully-rounded female character in a male world. Merab Ninidze is terrific as Penkovsky, a man brimming with confidence but full of fear on the inside. Who really impresses is Jessie Buckley as Shelia. This starts off as “the wife at home” role, and you wonder why Buckley would take such a small role. Yet as the film plays out, she gives her character far more depth and sympathy than you would expect, and this is why she is becoming one of this country’s finest actresses.
As Wynne, Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic. An ordinary, almost insignificant man who is placed in extraordinary situations, Cumberbatch excels, showing the nerves, the inner excitement, as he goes deeper into this world of espionage. You watch as he goes from a man fearful of his family and his own life to a man who is willing to stand up to the secret service as they worry things should stop; he commands the character from head to foot. In the final act, we get a total transformation that will bring you to tears. It’s one of his best performances.
The Courier has minimal action, is thought-provoking and incredibly tense. It captures this world of Cold War espionage brilliantly and will grip from start to finish. It also allows us to praise these brave men who may have stopped the world from destruction, and they should be celebrated.
4 out of 5