Filmed back in the Autumn of 2018, and originally titled Ironbark, The Courier has taken a circuitous route to the big screen, taking its bow at the Sundance film festival, before the worldwide cycle of closures and lockdowns occasioned by Covid. With a top-notch cast, led by Benedict Cumberbatch, and supported well by Rachel Brosnahan, Merab Nindze and Angus Wright, the film tells the true story of Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a British businessman drawn into events at the very height of the Cold War.
As the story begins, Oleg Penkovsky (Nindze – codenamed Ironbark)), a soviet source, provides the CIA with intelligence suggesting the USSR are planning to place missiles in Cuba, in what would lead to a clear escalation in tensions between east and west. With the Americans needing to keep their fingerprints away from the exercise, they – through agent Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) – approach MI6 to engage them to penetrate the Soviet programme. They employ Wynne, a businessman used to operating worldwide, to pose as a business partner to Penkovsky, allowing him to travel to Russia and extract the necessary intelligence relating to the plans for Cuba.
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Hiding the true nature of his mission from his wife and family – who already have cause to doubt his honesty after a recent infidelity – Wynne must use his considerable charms as a salesman to sell the fiction, and avoid suspicion, both from his spouse, and from members of the various intelligence services looking closely at his movements. As interest in his movements grows, Wynne will insist he has no knowledge of his true mission and the nature of the documents he is smuggling out from behind the Iron Curtain, while Penkovsky must reconcile his desire to help the World avoid war, with his new position as a traitor to his country.
It must be said first off, that The Courier does not develop into the work it appears to be at the outset. With Wynne coming off as something of a snake oil salesman, the film looks like it will become a caper film anchored by a lead performance that seems that it will grow into a very broad performance. In reality the tone of the film can be summarised as pitching somewhere between Bridge of Spies and Cumberbatch’s own The Imitation Game: the former, as Wynne becomes a sympathetic presence with audiences, moving through the film with only the occasional sense that he has any idea of the danger he is in; the latter, as the performing of what is a basic good leads to Wynne being pitched into a level of focus and scrutiny that ends up doing him enormous har,; and the seeming one-note performance becomes something entirely richer.
This is grown-up, dialogue-heavy filmmaking, that deftly balances a mixture of tones: there is the slightest hint of the caper, as we sense a mission that everyone seems to feel is something of a punt – with no real confidence it will succeed; but, at the same time, it is clear that everyone – with the likely exception of Wynne – is fully aware of what is at stake. This is reflected in a score that mixes the impishly playful, with the sort of Hollywood noir that is reminiscent of the video game LA Noire in places. the film is dark and light, serious and playful, with characters broad and detailed all in one piece.
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Performances are uniformly terrific, though special mention must be given to our three leads. Cumberbatch gives a performance that deepens as it develops, with the character ending up in a place he could never have foreseen, in a turn indicative of the actor really committing to the requirement of the role – physically and emotionally. Ninidze is all quiet regret, with a sense that he really does not want to be taking the path he is forced to choose, with an accompanying sense of regret and pain when things do wrong, and his wife and family have to see him taken away. Brosnahan – looking for all the World like Evan Rachel Wood in this part – takes a relatively thin role and imbues it with a real feeling of empathy. Our characters know what they are doing is necessary, but knowing this makes it no easier for them.
There is little here that will allow the film to be marketed to great success in a post-Covid world. A small, talk-heavy work set in smoky rooms, with a plot that has huge consequences, yet feels small in scale. That said, it is to be hoped that The Courier finds its audience, as it really is a fine piece of work.
The Courier is out in Cinemas on 13th August from Lionsgate.