Dominic Cooke directs the smooth and duly understated film “The Courier.” The film focuses on the real Greville Wynne who was convinced to enter the realm of espionage during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Though the genre of the spy film now has countless examples, this take has authentic atmosphere, brisk pacing and fine performances imbued with mystery and ambivalence.
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a British businessman. During a meeting he encounters Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) who slyly work for secret intelligence.
The pair convince Wynne that he could be instrumental in benefiting the United Kingdom and the world. All that is necessary is to report on the business of Oleg Penkovsky, and it is not necessary to know any more. Franks and Donovan have selected him, precisely because he is an ordinary man.
Wynne’s only real role is to go to Russia as a PR man, to get the Soviets interested in Western business. It is stressed repeatedly to Wynne that there is no risk of arrest, pain or death, since he is a nondescript figure.
Wynne goes to the Soviet Union and meets the gregarious Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Wynne is charmed as is Penkovsky.
Donovan and Franks up the ante by asking for a courier service, insisting that Wynne need not know what the small parcels contain.
Cumberbatch plays the unassuming man to good effect with something of a self-deprecating Cary Grant. He may not say much but he has a soft smile and a twinkle in his eye. When he faces the office room, his jaw is set, his shoulders squared.
Ninidze has a good outing as the Soviet agent, a bit too quick to extend his hand, a bit too rapid in his joking. There is a bit of shade in Penkovsky. Yet a rapport develops and a bond takes shape.
Jessie Buckley has a good turn as Wynne’s wife Sheila who bristles at being left in the dark.
The film’s final scenes will stab your heart echoing the tone of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” while also recalling the photography of Mapplethorpe with the exemplary cinematography by Sean Bobbitt.
Though the hallmarks of the spy film are all represented here: averted glances, quickened footsteps and shadowy streets, the film is swift in momentum and well acted. “The Courier” is the latest in a trio of fine espionage performances for Cumberbatch, who wonderfully inhabited Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and Peter Guillam in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
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