‘THE Courier’ (different from the action flick of the same title we recently reviewed starring Olga Kurylenko) is a true espionage story set in 1960 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and the USSR almost clashed in a nuclear war. The espionage film is a genre in itself, from the James Bond and Jason Bourne films to the more cerebral ones like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “Bridge of Spies”. But it has now become quite scarce as most spy stories are now filmed as mini-series on TV.
In “The Courier”, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title role, a simple British businessmann, Greville Wynne, who is recruited into one of the most crucial missions in history. He’s doing business in Russia for British manufacturers, so a CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and the English MI-6 Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) persuades him to be their conduit to a Soviet businessman and former military officer, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze).
His mission is to transport vital information and intelligence about the Russian nuclear program. He resists at first but later on becomes an unlikely hero who will eventually prevent a deadly confrontation between two world powers and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film shows actual footage of then US Pres. John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev.
The script shows how an unassuming man like Wynne finds himself embroiled in international espionage. As a businessman, he deals with Russian clients to get lucrative contracts for expansion in the USSR. But secretly, he sneaks out information from Penkovsky, operating under the codename Ironbark, without fully grasping the ramifications of the information he is transporting.
He hides his mission even from his wife (Jessie Buckley), who starts suspecting he’s having an affair when he’s a tyro spy hiding in plain sight. His friendship with Penkovsky develops over dinners and while watching the Bolshoi Ballet. It deepens when he meets the later’s family and he promises to help them defect later from Russia and seek asylum in the U.S.
We, as viewers, are always aware of the high personal stakes at play in their clandestine transaction and when things get so hot, we heartily sympathize with both of them. The film’s fact-based climax is the escape attempt to help Penkovsky defect to the USA. Director Dominic Cooke succeeds in executing it with enough thrills and tension to push you to the edge of your seat as most of the key players are shown being apprehended.
The film is truly affecting due to the splendid performance of the entire cast. Cumberbatch is one of the finest young British actors working today. We were totally enthralled by his portrayal of the tormented gay inventor Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”. Now, as Wynne, he gives another sterling performance as the unlikely spy who has to spend two brutal years of incarceration in Russia.
As the spy with a conscience who volunteers to one last trip to Russia to help his Soviet counterpart get out, he mixes various emotions from paranoia to vulnerability and later on, in prison, we feel his anguish and fortitude while in solitude. You’d see he really lost weight as becomes thin and his cheekbones are protruding while languishing in jail.
Merab Ninidze also stands out as the ill-fated Penkovsky. He’s an actor from Tbilisi, Georgia, who is best known for the German film, “Nowhere in Africa”, that won the Oscar best foreign language in 2001. He also plays a duplicituous Russian diplomat in the current action flick, “Without Remorse”.
He plays Penkovsky with such an earnestness that you’d believe he has formed a deep friendly bond with Wynne to show that they maybe two people from different sides of the world, but they can work together to help prevent its destruction. He risks his life as he believes in peace and makes a personal sacrifice when he never admitted that Wynne as a courier is aware of the intelligence he is passing on.
That scene in prison between the two of them where Wynne tells him that they helped in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis is so touching. The film has great production values, with the period design effectively evoking London and Moscow of that era. Even the costuming adds to the lavish look of the film.