This film holds firm on its targeted message and pulls this trigger with ease
Published on March 26, 2021
Rating 3.5 /5
The Courier is a spy thriller that puts in the work to be a little more than a procedural portrayal of historical events. It makes the mission and stakes clear but also keeps the story more personal than overwhelming. Even though this is about the true story of crucial evidence that shaped the Cuban Missile crisis and the political landscape of the 1960s Cold War, the appeal is kept in check so the film feels more like the tale of two unlikely spies than a textbook recount of espionage.
It helps that we can identify with the two central characters of such a plot involving gathering intelligence inside Russia. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) seems to be your average Russian businessman with a wife and daughter but secretly provides intel to MI6 on what is going on within his country. He fears that his mission is becoming far too dangerous as the KGB has become far stricter and vicious when it comes to outing spies. After witnessing a spy being shot in front of him, he begs MI6 for better contact, someone who won’t be found out so easily.
When MI6 and the CIA coordinate, they decide to ask businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help out with the mission. Being an average husband and father, Wynne spends most of his days slinging dry banter with his wife and looking after his son. He never expected that he’d one day be called upon by his country to spy on the Russians. To be asked such a thing makes him quiver, fearful to be in the presence of spies. The secret service organizations ensure Wynne that his mission won’t be a tough one. All he needs to do is go about his business and sneak some photos in his luggage after meeting with Oleg. Just, you know, be aware that the KGB may be listening everywhere you go.
I do quite admire the effort that director Dominic Cooke puts in to making this true spy story movie with brisk intrigue. The montage of Wynne’s Russian trips while the briefings are delivered makes for engaging depictions of the unlikely spy too caught up in his casual nature to worry about the dangers. Yet the danger boils up and follows him home, often leading to explosive arguments with his son and anxiety-fueled relations with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley). Sheila’s fears are also building as she realizes that her husband is changing, unleashing more pressures that he keeps locked in a stoic cage during his many espionage tasks abroad.
It’s only when Wynne starts connecting more with Oleg is there some sort of contentment. They both have families they care about and worries that seem to lessen the more they chat over dinner and drinks. Wynne even invites Oleg into his home to strengthen their bond, an act that can sadly not be had in Russia. Their connection is a reminder of what’s at stake in their secret war against the Cold War. The performance of both is exceptional as well, with Cumberbatch operating with constant unease while Ninidze puts on a somber sternness of secrecy.
The film only seems to lose its compelling edge after tension breaks in the second act and turns into a war of attrition in the third act of imprisonment. It is during this part of the film that Cumberbatch is given his accolade-bait moments of quiet contemplation and monologues delivered as the soundtrack swells. These moments fall too neatly into the typical spy drama tropes that it nearly robs the film of its personal edge by feeling more like a prestige picture in trying to bring the emotional ties home to a tear-worthy conclusion.
The Courier is far from the best of spy dramas but it still does an ample job telling its story and making it a compelling journey of simple men accomplishing extraordinary feats of historical importance. Where most films of this nature become so mired in details they lose track of the personal edge, this film holds firm on its targeted message and pulls this trigger with ease. It may not be a bullseye but it's still a palpable shot.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.