When is a spy drama not a spy drama? One answer might be: when the spy in question isn’t really a spy. Thus is the true-life story of British businessman Greville Wynne, recruited during the height of the Cold War to travel back and forth to the Soviet Union to convey intelligence from one of the highest-level operatives in the Soviet military/government, Oleg Penkovsky—secrets so important, they helped prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into a full-on nuclear conflict. And while a cinematic adaptation of this story might have been very easy to turn into a thriller, director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) is more interested in the human story of Wynne, which includes his wife, who thinks her husband is cheating on her, and an unexpected friendship that develops between Wynne and Penkovsky, nearly leading to the former dying to save the latter.
In The Courier, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wynne as a flawed man who drinks too much and leads an otherwise unexciting life, which makes him the perfect person for this job. Any investigation into his life by the Soviets would yield noting suspicious. But when MI-6 and the CIA (represented by Rachel Brosnahan’s Emily Donovan) approach Wynne about the assignment, there’s a clear mix of disbelief, fear and excitement in the possibilities of doing something outside the scope of his normal life. Wynne is also a highly personable chap and his drinking issues come in handy when doing business with the Soviets, including Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who has very specific reasons for betraying his country that mostly involve not wanting to see his family die because the egos of two superpowers can’t keep their respective arsenals in their pants.
While the specifics of Wynne’s job as a courier (one who was never fully aware of what it was he was transporting, thus giving him deniability if he were ever caught) are interesting, the film tends to shine brightest when we see his home life and his more personal interactions with Penkovsky. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is suspicious of her husband’s heightened emotional state brought on by nerves; she assumes he’s traveling so much because he’s seeing another woman, leaving her to care for their young son (Keir Hills) alone. He attempts to reassure her, but he’s apparently slipped before.
Director Cooke and his star Cumberbatch have worked together before, both in the theater (Cooke is perhaps better known in the UK as a stage director) and on the fantastic second season of The Hollow Crown historical drama, in which Cumberbatch played Richard III. So it’s clear that this unconventional entry in the spy genre was an act of mutual faith on both their parts. Not that the film doesn’t have thriller moments, but those aren’t what drive the story forward and make the film interesting.
Not to give too much away, but the final third of The Courier deals with the very harsh consequences of this spy ring, and almost feels like a separate, much more claustrophobic movie in which a man not trained to withstand interrogation is brutally questioned and must act as if he knows nothing about his part in this game. And the British government claims its hands are tied because if they offer to trade a high-level Soviet spy for Wynne, that would be admitting he was something more than an innocent pawn in this lucrative intelligence operation. The low-key nature of the film almost works against its ability to be emotionally impactful at that point. But I found myself gently pulled into this story, almost imperceptibly, until I was fully invested in the lives of these characters and this wonderful footnote in British history. It may not make its impact felt in the moment, but I’m guessing you’ll reflect on the story being told, and the way in which The Courier tells it, longer than you would most spy stories.
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