Tuesday 21 December 2021

Movie Review: The Courier (2020)

A fact-based Cold War drama, The Courier offers old-fashioned espionage tension in the shadow of a looming global conflict.

In 1960, aggressive rhetoric is on the rise between the United States and the Soviet Union. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a London-based English salesman of industrial equipment with business contacts in Eastern Europe. Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of the MI6 and the CIA's Helen Talbot (Rachel Brosnahan) recruit Greville as an amateur courier. They ask him to expand his business into the Soviet Union and establish contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a member of the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research, but also an intelligence officer and a deep undercover agent for the Americans codenamed Ironbark.

Greville starts making regular trips to Moscow, establishing a friendship with Penkovsky and acting as a courier to smuggle Soviet secrets back to the CIA. Greville has to keep his activities secret from his wife Sheila (Jessie Buskley), straining the marriage. When the Cuban nuclear missile crisis of 1962 threatens a devastating world war, the espionage activities take on heightened importance, endangering both Penkovsky and Greville.

Based on real events, The Courier ventures into the heart of the shadow wars. Oleg Penkovsky was one of the Cold War's most influential spies, and writer Tom O'Connor captures his remarkable activities through the lens of friendship with Greville Wynne. Finding a firm footing where individuals help shape history, director Dominic Cooke crafts less a thriller and more a well-paced human-centred drama of two men bonding over drinks, culture, family, and a desire to avoid a catastrophic war.

The dazzling set designs and costumes capture a 1960s aesthetic in Moscow and London, recreating an eavesdropping era with few safeguards against nuclear muscle flexing. Without getting bogged down in details, Cooke highlights the importance of Penkovsky feeding the Americans essential secrets about Soviet nuclear capabilities and plans, Gerville as the go-between aware of criticality but not content. Brief scenes of President Kennedy and Secretary Krushchev trading threats underline the stakes.

As Greville is sucked deeper into spy games, his personal life suffers, and between the dangers of playing courier, avoiding mistakes, and keeping secrets from his wife and child, he understandably starts to buckle, feeding the film's dramatic tension. But the final third turns away from the rhythm of spying and a ticking global conflict clock, and instead moves towards an arduous survival episode. With Greville and Penkovsky separated, the human dynamics fizzle despite one clumsy reunion scene.

In a performance of spectacular depth, Benedict Cumberbatch dominates the film's soul. From middling salesman to hesitant amateur agent, conflicted husband, and finally a forcefully loyal friend, Cumberbatch covers an impressive range of character growth.

Cerebral but also drawing warmth from the strength of a fundamentally human connection, The Courier delivers.

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