REVIEW : The Unsuspected Hero of ‘The Courier’ (2020)

‘The Courier’ is a tense, well-orchestrated spy movie.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Benedict Cumberbatch walks away from Kensington Station in a slightly baggy three-piece suit and brimmed hat.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate UK

As a veil of secrecy and anticipation, heightened by mutual threats from both USSR and United States, bears over humanity at the dawn of the Cold War, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by MI6 to spy on the opposing force.

Greville had this far worked as a traveling salesman, tending to a modest lifestyle with his wife and son. He happened to travel, once in a while, to Eastern Europe. But when the West receives a letter from Oleg “Ironbark” Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a decorated Soviet colonel offering his cooperation to prevent the upcoming conflict, Greville becomes the perfect candidate for intel. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) are the ones to instigate his recruitment, stating that his unassuming position of ordinary salesman will serve as the perfect coverup for the assignment. Greville doesn’t think himself fit, but he is slightly emotionally blackmailed into maintaining his engagement in the whole affair; they tell him that he has the potential to take part in stopping a fast approaching nuclear catastrophe and to save his family from imminent threat. He is soon sent out to the USSR to sit in on meetings alongside Oleg, wearing a microphone, and reports back to MI6 the events that lead to what we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Angus Wright, and Rachel Brosnahan having a conversation in the middle of a market
Image courtesy of Lionsgate UK

Thus ensues sequence after sequence of sleights of hands, secretive exchanges of documents and hushed conversations.  Greville operates merely from the outside, but as the movie goes on, he starts to grasp the gravity of his role and begins to get a sense of the bigger picture: he is one of the few men standing between world peace and a nuclear war. To carry out his mission, Greville learns to control his emotions, play pretend as an ordinary man and shake hands with Soviet officers, all while finding a loyal and sympathetic companion in Oleg, who he nicknames “Alex”. The two of them form a bond; there is a growing feel of camaraderie born from being bound to secrecy in such risky circumstances. Their chemistry is at the very center of the mission, and creates a refreshing communal aspect that movies of this genre sometimes lack. Among a multitude of spy thrillers, The Courier stands out with a friendship that transcends borders.

Merab Ninidze standing in front of a hammer and sickle; symbol of the USSR.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate UK

The Courier is a tense, well-orchestrated spy movie based on real life events. It gives some great insight into the atmosphere of the 1960s, and conveys the fear and tension of the period. The two male lead characters face daunting odds, and are provided with compelling storyline arcs, but at the cost of any in-depth exploration of the remainder of the cast. At times lacking the stamina imperative to build up to the third act, the film still delivers as a convincing and entertaining thriller. Greville’s involvement in the war was discreet and hasn’t been discussed much prior to the film’s creation, but he played a significant part in the mission he executed. Cumberbatch revels under the accumulating pressure, his performance as commanding as usual, carrying the responsibility of his nation’s – and the world’s – fate on his shoulders. By his side, Ninidze holds his own, playing a loyal and dedicated man, set on bringing peace top others at the cost of his safety and honor. The movie sheds light on the unsung heroes of the Cold War and on the communal efforts that were carried out to preserve the safety of mankind.

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Produced by: Adam Ackland, Ben Browning, Ben Pugh

Distributed by: Lionsgate UK

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan

Available: For digital download from 29 October, Blu-ray & DVD from 1 November