The new Cold War movie"The Courier" about a Soviet whistleblower and a British businessman is equally based on real events and individuals and also is very much the product of a screenwriter's imagination
The new Cold War movie" The Courier" about a Soviet whistleblower and the British businessman who helped transfer information to Western intelligence agencies is both based on actual events and individuals and also is very much the product of a screenwriter's imagination. That is not to criticize the movie written by Tom O'Connor ("The Hitman's Bodyguard") and directed by Dominic Cooke ("On Chesil Beach"). It is only to say that it's more historical fiction than it is history. The entire fact of the extraordinary chapter has likely died with the main characters and/or been obscured and distorted by the men and women who write these things down.
What we understand is that there was indeed a Soviet official named Oleg Penkovsky, played in the movie by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, who was an important source for the Americans during the Cold War and the leadup to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Among Penkovsky's contacts was a British civilian termed Greville Wynne, who wrote an autobiography about his adventures. Even the reliability of the account has been questioned. Still, it provided an interesting jumping off point for O'Connor to write a classic espionage thriller that opens in select theaters and on demand Friday.
In"The Courier," later Penkovsky makes a first outreach into the West, MI6 and the CIA are at a loss for how to nurture him as a supply. They pick that a civilian that may conduct business in the Soviet Union is your best bet and somewhat casually land on Wynne.
Cumberbatch, who we have seen play suave, unkind and egotistical many occasions through the years, plays Wynne within a normal middle class schlub only attempting to keep his family afloat and club memberships intact. He does not suspect he's dining with spies if his administration friend Dickie (Angus Wright) and an American CIA agent, Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), sit down with him to recruit him to service. He reacts with a boyish giddiness like it had been Ian Fleming himself sitting across the table.
Emily is just one of the inventions of the movie. O'Connor has said he just made a decision to create the CIA agent a girl. It breaks the monotony of these a male cast and it's always a delight to see Brosnahan in 60s garb. But in addition, it feels somewhat insincere to simply insert girls in particular historical settings where they were not. It was also done using the Felicity Jones character in"The Aeronauts" and the effect is often the reverse of enabling. Since"The Courier" is so fictionalized, nevertheless, it's a lot easier to accept here. Plus, she has to be the stronger agent.
Maybe not that Wynne, that was in a bit of a rut, had much convincing. He jumps on the chance and begins taking extended trips overseas, leaving his wife (Jessie Buckley) and young son in the home. The film has an almost ebullient tone for much of the first half as Wynne and Penkovsky get to know and enjoy every other over caviar lunches, big drunken nights out and tearful evenings in the ballet. It gently drifted along despite the fact that the stakes include death and nuclear holocaust. The honeymoon will end, however, as suspicions begin to arise around this business connection and things get much more complex for our protagonists, which I won't spoil here, but it's a tonal whiplash.
"The Courier" is a story we have not seen on film but it still feels really familiar most of the time, together with espionage film tropes and cliches to spare. While it might not be on the exact same level as"Bridge of Spies," it is strong, well-acted and pleasurable yet. Just don't use it since the text for any history reports.
Running time: 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.