‘The Courier’ delivers an empathetic, personal, and true Cold War spy story

“The Courier” – “So, tell me, what do you need?” – Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Greville is a British businessman, and he spends his days meeting with prospective clients, taking them to lunches, dinners, and golf outings.  He’ll also miss a key putt or two on purpose to help boost his customers’ morale and, in the process, his sales commissions.  He’s middle-aged, out of shape (as described by another character), and happily married with a son.

Well, relatively happy.  It’s 1960, and Greville and Sheila (Jessie Buckley) pay their bills, live modesty, and hope for eventual retirement.  The word risk is a foreign concept, like jalapenos and bungee jumping, but MI6 and American intelligence ask Greville to step – or more like dramatically leap – outside his comfort zone.

Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) request that this Average Joe become a courier for the British and American governments to extract Soviet intelligence from inside the U.S.S.R.  Greville will be a courier, and per Google, its definition is a company or employee of a company that transports commercial packages and documents.

Franks and Donovan aren’t arming Greville and having him sneak into KGB offices and lift very important papers, but instead, he meets with a decorated Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) – who wishes to work with the Brits and Yanks – and carries sensitive records backs to The West.

Director Dominic Cooke’s (“On Chesil Beach” (2017)) Cold War spy thriller feels like “Bridge of Spies” (2015), where an ordinary American lawyer (Tom Hanks) treads into high-flying CIA, FBI, and name-your-letters terrain in Berlin during a time when the U.S.S.R. separated the city into East and West.

Steven Spielberg’s picture – nominated for six Oscars (and won one) – successfully leaned on the narrative of the hero diving into deep waters without any swimming practice, so to speak, as danger and enemies surround him in shadows and plain sight.  James B. Donovan (Hanks) didn’t read Espionage for Dummies before his assignment, but he’s a perceptive and wise career professional who adapts.

Here, Greville is a stranger in a strange land as well.  For anyone who has traveled internationally on their own, you will relate to his predicament, even if massive government detective work wasn’t listed on your itinerary.

Cooke and art director Kevin Woodhouse get the early 60s Communist décor just right.  The crew filmed in Prague and ensured to find brick and mortar edifices of gray…and more gray.  Our protagonist trudges through faceless, minimalist office buildings and hotels, where everything “is just a little different”, to quote Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in “Pulp Fiction” (1994).

Wynne is traveling behind the Iron Curtain.  Not only is his new work surroundings without creature comforts, but he senses potential adversaries – with promises of Russian gulags – everywhere.

Cumberbatch, of course, has no shortage of bravado-fuel in his acting tank with his turns as Dr. Stephen Strange, Col. Mackenzie in “1917” (2019), Sherlock Holmes, and Khan, to name a few.  Here, he’s thoroughly convincing as a hesitant, unsure fellow, one rightly concerned for his safety.  Greville still pushes forward with numerous excursions to Russia, meetings with Oleg, and flights back to Britain to hand over paper and photo treasures to help prevent WWIII.   He takes deep breaths from time to time, like a first-time WWI soldier about to leave the trench and charge into No Man’s Land.

“The Courier” doesn’t fill its 111-minute runtime with gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, or explosions.  The film hinges on Cumberbatch’s delicate performance of navigating Greville’s growth with the new side hustle and developing a budding relationship with Oleg.  Benedict succeeds on both counts – with a thespian 1, 2 step –  by appealing to his character’s vulnerabilities and attempts to rise above them.

Cumberbatch has help with an impressive ensemble.  Ninidze brings a discreet, cautious air to Penkovsky, that begs the audience to trust him.  Wright offers a corporate/governmental formality to Franks, and Brosnahan shines as a CIA operative hyper-focused on results without sacrificing her humanity.  Meanwhile, Buckley – who is terrific in everything – plays Greville’s wife who copes with her husband’s odd behavior and work hours.  (Greville has to keep his new gig a secret, even from Sheila.)

Hey, our salesman-turned-spy can’t slip on his slippers after a long day at the office and say, “Oh, Sheila, you wouldn’t believe what happened.  The KGB was following me this morning, and I thought I’d be standing in front of a firing squad by lunchtime.”

Even though Buckley plays an occasionally-seen supporting player, Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor dial up a big moment for her in the third act.

“The Courier” is based on a true story, as Greville and Oleg were real-life historical figures.  That fact flipped through my mind on a repeat-cycle, as their work – during the early 1960s – carried daunting gravitas.

⭐⭐⭐  out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions; Trailer credits: FilmSelet Trailer

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