Directed by Dominic Cooke, The Courier tells the little-known (but true) story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a 1960s British businessman who thoroughly enjoys his role as a husband and father. However, his life is suddenly turned upside down when he is approached by the CIA and MI6 in order to help penetrate the Soviet nuclear programme. The plan is simple. Pose as a partner of Russian business associate Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) and transport any intelligence that Penkovsky can uncover regarding the Soviet missiles that are being transported to Cuba. However, as the Soviets close in on their operation, both men are forced to make decisions that potentially threaten their family and their lives.
Stylish and sleek, The Courier has the look and feel of other classic espionage thrillers such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Bridge of Spies. Blanketed with a bleached colour palette and armed with a solid script, the film does an excellent job of transporting the viewer to an era that truly left a mark on world history. Interestingly, while Courier plants the viewer in the midst of one of the most intense global moments in recent history, it’s the relationships that drive the narrative. Though set in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cooke is far more interested in how these extreme circumstances affect the people on an interpersonal level. In doing so, Courier feels more relatable as it recognizes the stress that these circumstances would have had on families and friendships in addition to their potential global ramifications.
What’s more, the film features some truly remarkable performances from its cast. Though rising star Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan provide solid work here in their respective roles, it’s Cumberbatch and Nindze that shine most brightly among the stars. Anchoring the film with their genuine concern for one another, Nindze and Cumberbatch provide the emotional core of The Courier and help set it apart from other examples in the genre.
Playing the character with doe-eyed innocence, Cumberbatch brings an incorruptibility and charm to everyman Wynne that still allows him to be a credible resource to the government. However, it’s the film’s final third that truly pushes his performance. Captured and tortured by Russian officials, Cumberbatch shows his commitment to the role and truly deserves recognition for his focus and presence. At the same time, Nindze almost steals the film with an incredible performance as Penkovsky. Caught between devotion to his country and his desire to preserve human life, Nindze plays his character with a complex blend of strength and human compassion as he masks his concerns behind a steel grin.
The interesting thing about Courier is that, though the film takes place over 50 years ago, its sense of urgency behind global politics and tension still feels current. (In some ways, if one were to substitute the film’s use of spy cameras with internet hacking, it would feel as though it were taking place today.) In the midst of constantly shifting global relationships and the tensions that creates, the impact of people’s contributions and voices continue to leave their mark on the world.
With this in mind, The Courier highlights the value of the small acts in overwhelming circumstances. For example, despite the results of their actions, Wynne and Penkovsky never do anything ‘wild’. The anti-thesis of James Bond, their actions appear small by comparison. There are no car chases or gunfire. However, the courage shown by Penkovsky and Wynne and their willingness to do what’s right sends waves that turn the tide of history. Their commitment to both their families and world peace drives them to take risks to affect change that only they can do.
While their actions may seem small, the results affected everyone.
With patience and heart, The Courier is well worth your time. Director Cooke weaves a truly fascinating web of intrigue that shines light on a story that many of us have never heard before. For Penkovsky and Wynne, these moments changed their lives. Thankfully though, The Courier also does a great job of showing how their actions also changed the world.
To hear our conversation with director Dominic Cooke, click here.
The Courier is available on VOD on Friday, April 16th, 2021.