The Courier is a spy movie, so we know what to expect, right? Gun fights, car chases, heart-stopping stunts…
Well no, because this ‘based on a true story’ tale, set in the cinematically-neglected Cold War era, plays it straight and, for the most part, sticks pretty closely to the facts. It’s 1960 and America and the Soviet Union are engaged in the arms race, the two super powers moving inexorably nearer and nearer to nuclear conflict.
High-ranking Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penskovsky (Merab Ninidze) can see the disaster that lies ahead. He contacts a couple of American tourists and asks them to take a message to the American Embassy, offering to supply the CIA with inside information in exchange for safe passage to the USA for him and his family.
Some time later, CIA agent Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan) approaches MI6, asking if they can suggest somebody who might act as a go-between for them. Agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) thinks he may have chanced upon the perfect recruit, innocuous businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who spends most of his time travelling the world, wining and dining potential clients for his various business interests. Wynne would surely be above suspicion? So they ask him if he will be their inside man. At first Wynne is non-plussed, if perhaps a little flattered by their invitation, but, after some prevarication, he accepts their offer. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself making contact with Penskovsky in Moscow and carrying various secret messages back and forth between Russia and Great Britain.
But, of course, while this all might look dreadfully routine on the surface, the dangers of being discovered are just as nerve-wracking and the consequences every bit as deadly.
Director Dominic Cooke ensures that The Courier is strong on period setting: the drab, chain-smoking world of the early 60s is accurately depicted in every shot. Both Cumberbatch and Ninidze nail their roles with aplomb and Tom O’Connor’s script focuses on the developing friendship between the two men, making Wynne’s ultimate actions totally believable. Jessie Buckley takes a thankless role as Wynne’s buttoned-up wife, Sheila, and wrings every ounce of possibility out of it, proving once again what a consummate actor she is.
While the film might be short on action tropes, it never lacks suspense and, as Wynne’s deception begins to unravel, the stakes are increasingly cranked up for maximum tension. Also, this is a film that doesn’t back away from depicting the horrors of Wynn’s subsequent incarceration. (Next time I dine out, I think I’ll skip the soup course.)
Some heroes, it seems, are less showy than the Bonds and the Bournes – and here’s the proof that a spy movie can be thrilling without regular recourse to flashy sports cars and semi-automatic weapons.