CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Merab Ninidze, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotjakovs, Olga Koch
RUNNING TIME: 111 mins
BASICALLY…: During the Cold War, British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) is recruited to help MI6 and the CIA in efforts against the Soviet Union…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
As the Delta variant is starting to push back some high-profile releases once again, all eyes are currently on No Time To Die: will the long-awaited 007 blockbuster be postponed for the umpteenth time, or will the producers firmly stick to its current late-September release date? While we patiently (or impatiently, depending on your appetite for all things Bond) await the decision on that spy adventure, another espionage thriller in the form of The Courier is here to calm the tide before we finally get to see Daniel Craig’s final outing.
The Courier, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor, is obviously a very different kind of spy story than any James Bond movie; this one is about very real spies, during an era where secrets and information were more valuable than complete world domination, and the top British agent on the case wasn’t a suave, martini-swigging playboy, but a mild-mannered, completely average businessman who just so happened to be central to preventing one of the biggest conflicts in the Cold War. His story, as actionless as it may be, is a fascinating one, and it makes for a rather strong and engaging thriller that you can’t help but be oddly charmed by.
Set in the early 60s, as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are at their highest levels, the story kicks off as high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) – concerned about the growing risk of all-out nuclear war between both nations – covertly delivers top-level information to the US Embassy, attracting the attention of MI6 and the CIA, the latter represented by agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). The organisations decide that to avoid suspicion, they’ll recruit an ordinary civilian to act as a representative and retrieve more information from Penkovsky; that civilian turns out to be Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman who reluctantly travels to the USSR and manages to form an easy friendship with Penkovsky – dubbed “Alex” by his non-Russian new friend – igniting a series of back-and-forths as Wynne acts as courier to information that Alex secretly provides. However, as the “business” trips to Russia become more frequent, with vital secrets among the returning cargo – including some alarming plans to place nuclear missiles in Cuba – both Wynne and Alex find themselves in increasingly dangerous waters, with Alex being targeted by the KGB, and Wynne facing a strained marriage to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley).
The spy elements of The Courier are less Ian Fleming and more John le Carré, with a stronger focus on the real covert operations that British, American and Soviet agencies practised to smuggle information between each other, and the tensions that arose from the slightest of suspicions from a ruthless KGB or other external parties. The key emotional core, though, lies in the strong bond that Greville Wynne and Oleg “Alex” Penkovsky form with one another over the course of their time together, which is where writer Tom O’Connor successfully manages to make the audience care about mundane espionage activity. Both characters, and their respective performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze, are very likeable and share strong chemistry with each other, based entirely on professionalism as well as a good deal of respect for one another. When one, or both, feels threatened or intimidated, so do you as the script has done a very good job of making these people feel very sympathetic and three-dimensional, in addition to making you aware of the extreme risks they’re taking in order to do what they do.
Director Dominic Cooke also energizes the otherwise routine events with a jolty pace throughout the first three-quarters of the film, accompanied by some moody shots by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and a lively musical score by Abel Korzeniowski. The direction is solid, allowing enough time with certain characters to understand their motivations and concerns, while also dedicating significant portions to some intriguing real-world spy activity, including the discovery that would escalate (and then de-escalate) into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cooke makes his an entertaining thriller that you can easily get sucked into, with a story and characters that you do end up caring for and are increasingly interested in with regards to how they’re all going to turn out.
While for its first three-quarters the film’s pacing is swift and breezy, things grind to an almost-complete halt for its final twenty or so minutes, where it goes into an extended epilogue that goes on for way longer than it should, and could have easily been summed up in a couple sentences of ending text rather than showing us the whole ordeal. There are some grisly details within this final section, including some gaunt make-up and startling weight-loss on account of one of the main actors, and the performances remain top-notch as they always have been, but it does make the film drag its feet somewhat towards the finish line, and after a point you’re just waiting for the film to finally end.
It’s a downbeat conclusion to an otherwise engaging historical thriller, which boasts great performances, a (mostly) tight narrative, well-written characters, and an entertaining approach to a real-life story of Cold War espionage that might not be as action-packed as 007’s adventures, but still packs a punch with its intricate details and major international consequences; lest we forget, were it not for the efforts of the actual Greville Wynn and Oleg Penkovsky, the world might have become a much darker place in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. No matter how big or small their contributions were to preventing nuclear war from happening, the two are Cold War heroes, and they’ve now got their own film commemorating their noble efforts and their unlikely friendship which might have saved countless lives.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Courier is a largely thrilling espionage caper depicting the professional friendship of real-life Cold War heroes Greville Wynn and Oleg Penkovsky, excellent portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze respectively, in an entertaining and compelling fashion, up until an unnecessarily overlong epilogue that halts the breezy pace.