Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Angus Wright, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Editors: Tariq Anwar, Gareth C. Scales
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Benedict Cumberbatch has made a career of playing the smartest man in the room. Take Sherlock (2010-2017), The Imitation Game (2014) or even Doctor Strange (2016). In Cold War-thriller The Courier, he gets to experience the flipside as a man overwhelmingly out of his depth and gut-churningly aware of it. As British national Greville Wynne, a “middle-aged businessman who drinks a bit too much and isn’t in top shape”, his nondescript nature and frequent work trips make him the perfect liaison between two CIA and MI6 spies, and Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet Colonel who wants to pass on state secrets to them in the hope of staving off nuclear war. Throughout, Cumberbatch pulls off a compellingly consistent performance in a film that starts off light and steadily grows more unnerving.
Right from the introductory shot of Wynne, director Dominic Cooke foreshadows his eventual acceptance of anonymity and the necessity of blending in. With his face out of frame and only his feet visible, he gently swings his putt towards a golf ball and misses the shot. When he’s first approached with the proposition to act as a courier, he doesn’t adopt the mannerisms of a spy reflexively, still a guileless man for whom the notion of spying appears more fantastical than realistic. “I can’t believe I’m having lunch with spies,” he sputters in gleeful disbelief at a public restaurant, only to be met with stony stares from his dining companions. When he emerges from a plane in Moscow, his walk is stiff but the background score is jaunty, as if to suggest that Wynne still sees this as part of some grand adventure. The music remains upbeat when Penkovsky, in turn, arrives in London to pass on more information on the pretext of meeting Wynne’s clients. Chub Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ plays as they enjoy a night out on the town, trading cheeky toasts as they clink glasses.
It’s only when Wynne is coerced into a more robust commitment to being a courier that the score begins to thrum with more urgency. The gravity of his undertaking begins to dawn on him. Warnings of all-pervasive KGB surveillance fill him dread. He still plays the part, but this time, with the sheen of sweat on his forehead. Wearing a mask becomes Wynne’s full-time job. At work, he’s a businessman-turned-spy pretending to be a spy for the wrong side. At home, he must allay his wife’s suspicions that the long trips to Moscow and new workout regimen are signs of him cheating on her. Frustratingly, the film’s Russian dialogues aren’t subtitled on Amazon Prime Video, leaving viewers to use context clues to figure out what’s going on.
The heart of the story doesn’t come from Wynne’s relationship with his wife, but from the bond he forges with Penkovsky. The two men, each enmeshed in a world of secrets, have none from each other. Their sharp suspicion of everyone around them is in stark contrast to the blind faith they have in each other. Cooke uses parallels and callbacks to great effect to illustrate their friendship. On two separate occasions, when tensions between America and Russia are mentioned, they both talk of the nuclear race as a tussle between the politicians of those countries, with ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. They visit the Moscow ballet twice. The first time, it’s Cinderella and Wynne’s face registers the polite amusement of a man being introduced to a new art form. The second time, the stakes are much higher and the frenetic energy of the ballerinas performing Swan Lake reflects their mounting anxieties. When Wynne breaks down at the final act, it’s unclear whether he’s weeping at the tragedy that’s played out onstage or just finally found an outlet for his tightly-wound emotions.
Despite being based on real events, the threat of nuclear war feels abstract and far removed from the lives of these characters. What persistently looms large is the danger of being caught for espionage. While the film’s last act is bleak and brutal, Wynne’s friendship with Penkovsky, and his newly mended relationship with his wife, lend it poignancy, an emotional counterpoint to the cold, desaturated world of spycraft that’s preceded it.