Dir: Dominic Cooke. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright. 12A, 111 mins
Benedict Cumberbatch, with cheekbones curved like an archer’s bow and the flared nostrils of some ancient dragon, has the right face to play geniuses. Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, Thomas Edison – if he lets his lips settle with the right amount of tension, he can transform them all into something proud, elegant, and exceptional. But in Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama The Courier – which premiered at 2020’s Sundance Film Festival under the name Ironbark – Cumberbatch proves himself equally capable of playing the average Joe. It helps, too, that he can hide his distinctive features behind a thick moustache, and trade his confident tone for a softer, nervy lilt.
He is well cast in this true-life drama, which explores how history can be made by the most humble of people committing the smallest of actions. In the early Sixties, the Cold War turned the potential for a nuclear apocalypse into a daily, persistent threat, as tensions continued to rise between the US and the Soviet Union. Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a salesman with interests in eastern Europe, became a crucial pawn in ferrying highly classified information out of Russia, where it was being leaked by Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), and into the hands of MI6. Wynne’s trips to Moscow, and his meetings with Penkovsky, were all conducted under the guise of simple business.
Cumberbatch excels here by not falling back into dullish stoicism. A jolt of childish excitement courses through him when he’s first recruited, despite having no skills or insight into espionage. And when he first meets up with Penkovsky, it’s with the giddiness of a first date. “What happens now?” he blurts out. “I don’t need to do anything, do I?” The actor has an excellent scene partner in Ninidze, who plays Penkovsky with the gentleness of a man determined to keep hold of his humanity even under the threat of annihilation.
Screenwriter Tom O’Connor draws focus away from the Cuban missile crisis, leaving it to bubble menacingly in the background so that The Courier can be a story of the growing bond between these two men. They take sightseeing trips. They attend the ballet. They drink. Heavily. Something within their interactions – perhaps the spark of friendship, the fear of death, or the glamour of subterfuge – invigorates Wynne. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley, who is far too good an actor to be wasted in such a shallow, submissive role) remarks with a discernable air of suspicion that “he’s become so energetic in bed”. She suspects him of infidelity.
But The Courier is, inevitably, limited in its insight into how ordinary individuals can change the world. This is a commercially minded spy film, after all, so we come to understand Wynne and Penkovsky purely through action – shadowy meetings in car parks, the handing over of envelopes, or the discreet snapping of cameras. Sean Bobbitt, who masterfully shot so many of Steve McQueen’s films, is restricted here to a rather dull, drained colour palette, as if required to emulate the look of the film’s genre contemporaries. The Courier may have its moments, but it’s also burdened with certain expectations.
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