A tale of intrigue and tension, Gemma Creagh looks at The Courier, the true story of an unlikely spy trying to put a stop to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the 1960s, as two world leaders posture with deadly nuclear weapons, the stakes couldn’t be higher. CIA Agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) brings intel of a potential Russan asset to MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright). They need to make contact with the government official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) – but fear for his safety as he remains under the watchful eyes of the KGB. They convince British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an untrained civilian and dedicated family man, to form a relationship with Penkovsky. The protective veneer of their business mutual interests masks Wynne’s smuggling of sensitive Russan data out of the country. Over the course of their copious drinks, performative dinners, and theatre visits, the two men form a genuine bond.
Between the KGB closing in on potential leaks, understanding the cost to national security if he fails, and worrying for his new Russian friend’s safety, the pressure on Wynne starts to mount. Overwhelmed, his mental health frays and he snaps at his young son Andrew (Keir Hills) berating him to the point of tears. These drastic changes in behaviour evoke suspicion in his usually passive and supportive wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley). Meanwhile, as political tensions heat even further, and Penkovsky’s relationship to Wynne begins to arouse suspicion among the Russian authorities, Wynne must decide whether or not to undertake one last mission at great personal risk.
The themes in this period thriller couldn’t be more timely given the global threat of Russian political interference, the recent international actions taken by the leadership in Belarus and Saudia Arabia, and the revelations surrounding governments using Pegasus Spyware to monitor dissenting journalists and humanitarian workers. In an era of growing political unrest, malevolent actions which are supported by newly developed technology, fundamentally echo those past fears of nuclear devastation.
This tale of Russian espionage is shot beautifully by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and features a mostly grim, greying palette teamed with striking production design. The pacing is lingering and slow, and filled with subtle beats that are quite similar, while the writing is dialogue heavy and very expositional, but that is the nature of the beast when it comes to staying true to the historical subject matter.
In this film, it’s the rich character development and the deep chemistry between the two leads, Ninidze and Cumberbatch, that does the heavy lifting. The performances across the board are excellent, with a special nod to the talented Kerrywoman Jessie Buckley, who has the difficult task of delivering emotional range with a character that has very little agency. It’s also of note that this film is another example of Hollywood’s ageist habits when it comes to casting women, with Buckley being 14 years the junior of Cumberbatch. In his portrayal of Wynne, Cumberbatch proves he’s a committed actor and shows every one of those 45 years with the striking physical transformation he undertakes in the final sequences of the film.
If you like your stylish, character-led Cold War thrillers, then The Courier delivers.