Review: 'The Courier' (2021) Dir. Dominic Cooke
A fascinating true story set amidst the rising tensions of the Cold War comes to the big screen thanks to some real domestic and international talent who know the genre perfectly...
English businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) is successful in his work across Eastern Europe and also that of a loving family man to wife Sheila (Buckley) and young son Andrew (Keir Hills).
MI6 officer Dickie Franks (Wright) comes to Wynne with an offer to use his sales status to get secret information out of Russia with defector Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) as the Cold War heats up across the world.
Wynne soon begins to understand the role he is playing as "courier" and what this situation is doing to good men and women. Wynne soon risks everything to ensure he gets the job done and make sure those he cares for stay safe...
The check-list of period Cold War drama is here that wouldn't be right if they were absent. Clinical government offices and embassies. Trilby hats and greatcoats. The stiff-upper lip Queen's English and drawling Soviet tongue. Dark backstreets for secret meetings under moonlight. A score peppered with strings and brass from Abel Korzeniowski. Everything works to sell the period we are watching and once again proves the British film industry does know it's own history well to sell it on screen for audiences.
Benedict Cumberbatch shows his deserved praise as an actor once more, fitted with a tight moustache and tight accent to portray businessman Greville Wynne who is recruited by Military Intelligence to get in with Merab Ninidze's Russian Colonel Oleg Penkovsky using his sales pitch as a front to obtain secret information that could help tip the Cold War for the West. Since Wynne is literally a travelling salesman who is well respected professionally and socially, he's a perfect target for the Government to use in their espionage games.
Cumberbatch excels in these more story driven, character based roles over the big blockbusters. As Wynne, Cumberbatch is on point as much as he has been in other similar roles such as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and even Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's one of his best roles in years as an actor, displaying the right amount of contained emotion, drama, passion and patriotism to sell Wynne as someone you want to succeed. Jessie Buckley as wife Sheila is equally perfect to paint a solid family portrait feeling the threat of war via radio broadcasts, meetings with Russian "businessmen" and seeing the change of temperament in her loving husband.
Away from the blanket of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cumberbatch is one of the few actors who can be seen just as the role he is playing and not overshadowed by his own blockbuster talent in these smaller films.
Cumberbatch and Buckley really work well together as man and wife, you can feel their warmth together but also their fear when the Cold War comes knocking and cracks appear from the pressure. Solid support comes from American Rachel Brosnahan, Russian Kirill Pirogov and Brit Angus Wright to add a real international look and feel to the period.
While the story doesn't do anything new for the genre, writer Tom O’Connor balances the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet and Western forces with the threat of everyday life being torn apart by serving Queen and Country. We explore the story through eyes of ordinary folk who aren't spies or former Government agents; they are people who live and work long hours and bring up a family and enjoy social circles and fine dining with the money earnt. This slant on the usual narrative allows good time to get into the swing of how our characters work and what makes them tick, and also adds some sense of urgency and threat to people who aren't trained or fully prepared for the job they've been given to help the free world.
Putting our English hero in a real fish out of water scenario harkens back to many of the great spy films of the 1960s, having them face unknown dangers and threats without resorting to gun-fights and action scenes. The framing and editing is gentle, and we see everything on screen that we are meant to and nothing feels rushed or in your face in terms of setting the story and the rather touching and powerful climax.
The mystery and tension flows through the narrative as pressure increases on our leads to get the job done and avoid the risk of being caught, with so much riding on these normal men working for the Government who are happy to have the little people take the biggest risks.
Strong talent on and off screen bring a fascinating, well-paced and humane side to the Cold War that focuses more on what ordinary people can do over faceless Governments.
'The Courier' is a co-production between 42, FilmNation Entertainment and SunnyMarch