The 400-Word Review: The Courier
By Sean Collier
April 15, 2021
Ah, the Cold War: It’s the geopolitical conflict that keeps on giving, as least as far as the movies are concerned. There were spies! There were immaculate suits! There were two superpowers that can be depicted dramatically without wading through tricky representation waters!
And, most importantly, it ended without humanity destroying itself, an outcome which leads to innumerable stories about the individual people and moments who played a direct part in averting a nuclear holocaust. This time, we’re looking at Greville Wynne, the real-life businessman who served as a spycraft go-between, delivering Russian secrets to British intelligence.
Wynne is played in “The Courier” by Benedict Cumberbatch, who approaches the unlikely-spy role with tenacity, even if he comes off as a bit too cool and mysterious for a fish out of water. He’s recruited when a Russian would-be defector, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), slips a desperate message to the American embassy in Moscow; Penkovsky is close enough to Khruschev to know that things are about to get ugly.
Back in London, a CIA agent (Rachel Brosnahan) hatches a plan to recruit Wynne; he’s unassuming and already does business beyond the Iron Curtain. Wynne and Penkovsky strike up a friendship, a bond that ends up complicating matters.
To go farther with the plot would rob “The Courier” of the twists that are its lifeblood; whether or not you end up caring about Wynne and Penkovsky (they’re thinly drawn but well acted), the can-they-pull-this-off factor is more than enough to keep you engaged. “The Courier” also manages to avoid the intricate, double-crossing machinations of some of the more drab spy pictures; despite a mid-film change of stakes, the throughline and objectives are clear here. That’s not always the case, especially when an espionage thriller tries to get too clever.
Director Dominic Cooke attempts a trick or too — he abruptly silences the background noise when Wynne realizes what’s being asked of him — but his direction chiefly focuses on centering his performers. Tom O’Connor’s script struggles to justify the presence of Wynne’s family; an underserved Jessie Buckley, as his wife Sheila, has to deadpan unknowing jokes, such as an admonition: “Do stay out of the gulag, darling.” It’s an understandable attempt to get a second female character into the proceedings, but it doesn’t work. Fortunately, the meat is there; it’s ultimately a story of friendship in extremis, and in that, “The Courier” wins.
My Rating: 7/10
“The Courier” is available via digital on-demand services.