3 out of 5 stars

Though it premiered at Sundance last year before the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to plans for a theatrical release, and was favourably received, The Courier is not a big or ambitious film. It has slightly the air of the well-executed but often overly respectful and earnest, self-consciously serious historical movies that you find lurking deep down on Netflix, never making the ‘popular’ or ‘trending’ lists.

Pointing to any specific fault is difficult, as director Dominic Cooke and writer Tom O’Connor do workmanlike jobs, Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his best performances yet, and the rest of the cast is uniformly capable… but nothing in it surprises, at least until a downbeat and brutal final act. Still, it’s an inherently interesting story, fairly closely based on a real historical episode that won’t be familiar to most people nowadays, and it’s also well-told.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) is a successful English industrial machinery salesman in the early-1960s. An unexpected phone call from a vague acquaintance (Angus Wright) leads to lunch with him and a younger woman (Rachel Brosnahan), who turn out to be representatives of the British foreign intelligence agency MI6 and the CIA, respectively, who both persuade a flabbergasted Wynne—who already has business interests in eastern Europe—to visit Moscow and make contact with a high-level Soviet official who wants to supply intelligence to the west.

The Soviet in question is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), and both he and Wynne were real people, as were some but not all of The Courier’s other characters, and indeed Penkovsky was one of the most important sources that western intelligence ever developed behind the Iron Curtain.

That it’s all largely true rather than the concoction of an unimaginative writer may be surprising, given the predictability with which events unfold: though Penkovsky’s at first taken aback that his handler is not an accomplished agent (“I think the word is… amateur?”) a friendship blossoms between the two men, and the initially half-hearted Wynne becomes more committed to his mission even as it takes its toll on his mental health and his marriage. Meanwhile, the Berlin Wall goes up, the Russians install missiles in Cuba, JFK orates in blurry black-and-white on tiny TV sets, and the KGB starts investigating suspicions of a mole in its midst.

We’ve seen it many times before, and also seen the 1960s rendered in these browns and greys so many times before; Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), with its ordinary lawyer thrust into the midst of Cold War skullduggery, is the obvious comparison. But in The Courier’s favour, the lack of novelty doesn’t matter so much with a factual narrative—indeed, firmly anchoring the film in what we instantly recognise as a particular period may be a reassurance, and allows us to focus on events and people rather than being distracted by incidentals.

Cumberbatch shines in the lead role, physically resembling the real Wynne (as a final still photo makes clear) and carefully charting his transformation from an apolitical, hail-fellow-well-met businessman into a man passionate both about defusing the nuclear tension and about doing the right thing by Penkovsky. At his first lunch with the Russian, he makes his priorities clear by opining that despite the divided world, “factories still need machines, machines still need parts”—and meaning it. By the end, he’s standing up to MI6 and the CIA.

Perhaps O’Connor’s screenplay could’ve hinted a little more strongly at some self-aggrandisement in him, too—as the real Wynne later in life was given to spinning tall tales about much earlier espionage assignments that probably never existed—but The Courier is essentially an admiring, though not sycophantic, film. And in any case, it barely touches on his post-Penkovsky life.

And it’s very much Cumberbatch’s movie. Ninidze as Penkovsky is credible enough, but unlike Wynne the character has no arc and there’s less reason for the viewer to pay attention to him (even though The Courier was originally called Ironbark, his codename). His convictions are fully formed before the film starts and he never deviates from course. Other characters, similarly, are all quite believable though few can be described as impactful or engaging; notable exceptions are Jessie Buckley as Wynne’s wife, a strong and independent woman not given quite enough to do by the screenplay, and Vladimir Chuprikov, who catches the eye in a small part as a fanatical, ruthless Khruschev.

Kirill Pigorov is effectively chilling as a KGB officer, and Wright’s terrific as Dickie Franks, a later head of MI6, absolutely exuding the spirit of Rugby, Oxford, and the war. When Wynne first enquires as to whether Wright is more than the drab civil servant he’s pretending to be, the latter raises a single eyebrow, a whole ethos of stiff-upper-lip British understatement marvellously condensed into one muscle movement.

Some reviewers have also singled out Brosnahan, who plays his American opposite number, for praise but it’s difficult to see why her blandly efficient performance stands out for them.

Director Cooke, a well-regarded theatre veteran whose second feature this is after On Chesil Beach (2017), keeps things moving at just the right pace—lively but unhurried—and though the occasional fancy camera angle can be distracting, few foibles get in the way of the story. When things become tougher for Wynne in the final act the harshening of mood is well-reflected in cinematography and sound, too. On the soundtrack, meanwhile, a fine orchestral score by Abel Korzeniowski, in a restrained concert-hall idiom with a faintly Russian flavour, suits the mood perfectly (despite slight excesses toward the end of the film) and nicely complements the Tchaikovsky of Swan Lake which Penkovsky and Wynne see in Moscow.

Not a moment of The Courier is unenjoyable, uninteresting, or badly executed, then. But while it does hint slightly at an idea of some relevance to our own time—Penkovsky’s actions in revealing Soviet secrets to the west and perhaps averting disaster in Cuba could be seen as a case of individual activism making a global difference—it never manages to dispel the impression of being a dutiful, somewhat literal-minded biopic.

Like so many films of its kind, there’s nothing at all wrong with it, but there’s nothing much that stands out either; it’s the cinematic equivalent of Greville Wynne before the spooks got their hands on him, perhaps.

UK • USA | 2020 | 112 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • RUSSIAN

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Cast & Crew

director: Dominic Cooke.
writer: Tom O’Connor.
starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley & Angus Wright.