Films like Dominic Cooke’s The Courier are the types of films people say don’t exist anymore: mid-budget adult-minded dramas meant to be enjoyed by a common denominator. In that function, the film succeeds brilliantly and entertains plenty.
Based on a true story, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne. a British salesman who is approached by MI-6 and CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) to act as a courier between the US and Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Wynne is recruited due to his inability to do anything other than act in his role as a salesman.
Wynne and Penkovsky meet frequently in both England and Russia to exchange information and continue their business ruse. All the while, the two men grow to become friends while the CIA gains priceless intel against the Soviet’s nuclear plans in Cuba in the 1960s.
Full disclosure: I am a sucker for all Cold War movies. Espionage between Russian and American agents with fedoras, trench coats and secret parcels are precisely my jam. In this sense, the film worked on all levels. Cooke maintains this constant level of tension between the two primary characters always bubbling just under the surface. Every passing pedestrian feels like a spy, while every unknowing desk clerk could seemingly be reporting their every move.
The work takes a toll on Wynne and his wife (Jesse Buckley), who suspects him of having an affair. Cumberbatch’s nervous energy and salesman’s demeanor stays steady and attempts to assuage his wife without give up the details. The role proves much more complex than it would seem on paper. Cumberbatch flexes between steely resolve, gregarious slimeball and nervous Nelly within a series of scenes without betraying the central characterization. It is by no means flashy, but the actor fights against the broad nature of such a multifaceted character and comes out the other side all the better.
Ninidze steals the film with his stoic Soviet spy. There is so much more underneath what Penkovsky is selling and Ninidze never betrays his stone-faced persona. Films that portray turncoats usually do so with a fervor and bluster, but Ninidze and Cooke keep everything hidden and we never know the true depth of Penkovsky’s motivations.
The film doesn’t do any favors to the female characters. Brosnahan feels pasted in to a film that never wanted her and never finds anything substantial for her to do besides sit on the other side of the table opposite Cumberbatch. Buckley is also fated with an underwritten character, but her third-act scenes with Cumberbatch finally give her some narrative rope.
Aesthetically, these films can also act as a showcase for costume and production design, and the crafts don’t disappoint. The film zips along at a steady pace to the tune of Abel Zorzeniowski’s brooding score until the third act meditative slowdown.
Side note: I would love a depiction of Russia that does not emphasize the cold. The film takes place over a long period of time and at no point is the sun shining or a bright sky linger over the Russian architecture. I’m not expecting a Soviet heatwave, but the weather does reach the mid-70s in the summer and one film that depicts that would be a nice change of pace.
The Courier will not prove very memorable, but two solid performances propel it to the film that will improve upon future cable TV viewings.