The Courier, 2021.
Directed by Dominic Cooke.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, James Schofield, Anton Lesser, Keir Hills, and Vladimir Chuprikov.
Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Courier director Dominic Cooke is certainly aware that the actual espionage going on during the Cold War was not exactly exciting in terms of spectacle (unless you are Hideo Kojima rewriting the shit out of history with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater) meaning that the stressful toll such undercover work takes on the characters has to come first.
Benedict Cumberbatch is also a reliable biopic presence (The Imitation Game remains his best performance although he is good here when the script from Tom O’Connor is matching his abilities, which is not much and unsurprising coming from the writer of The Hitman’s Bodyguard), as the bulk of the narrative focuses on businessman Greville Wynne being recruited by MI6 operatives (Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright, both of whom are somewhat wasted) as the perfect plant for traveling back and forth to Moscow interacting with secret KGB traitor Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze, rising to the level of co-star despite the screenplay eventually letting him down) obtaining intelligence that comes to be related to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It’s rarely made clear the details of what is being transported back to the West, and for the most part, it’s not that important because the idea here is to explore that mounting pressure and suspense as, Greville, who initially is not even made aware that his service is about preventing nuclear war until Rachel Brosnahan’s Emily uses a combination of persuasion and manipulation to keep him committed to the cause, fronts as an apolitical businessman that only cares about the almighty dollar. The connection with Oleg that this work hinges on also develops as they traveled together, meet each other’s families (there’s a fairly strong scene where Greville’s young child has questions about why Russia hates the West), and even bond over attending ballet productions such as Swan Lake.
Barring cuts to a number of scenes inside offices with other characters, that’s mostly what works about The Courier. There is also a juxtaposition on how both men have to hide aspects of what they are doing to their wives. With that said, Greville’s wife Sheila is actually played by Jessie Buckley, who at this point in her career is already overqualified to play the worried spouse sitting at home. Nevertheless, it feels as if there was more to her character and presence that was severely chopped during the final act that initially almost seemed designed to shift the entire narrative over to her perspective.
Additionally, there is a whole lot of problems with that third act of The Courier, which starts off escalating the proceedings into a tense undercover escape that goes haywire. That’s all well and good until the script slides into what feels like a different story deserving of its own movie or at least more time given to it than what’s here. I spent the majority of the final 20 minutes wondering how things were going to wrap up so soon, and I got my answer in the form of forced emotional payoffs that would work if they didn’t come so soon. It would also play better if Oleg and his family weren’t just sidelined after the most dramatic sequence in the film.
Even if it could stand to use more focus on the central friendship between Greville and Oleg, The Courier remains engaging because it’s more interested in the human element of enacting this espionage work. When the film is sinking itself during the last 30 minutes, technically this remains true but it’s hard to overlook everything else that’s fumbled. The performances are fine and there are a few complicated aesthetically pleasing shots from Sean Bobbitt, and the true story of this friendship and what it was able to accomplish is inspiring, but as the Cuban Missile Crisis really kicks into gear the film starts to suffer an identity crisis that trades decent character work for a rushed and cloying finale.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com