Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 52 minutes, Director – Dominic Cooke
British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by MI6 and the CIA to interact with Soviet source Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to deescalate the threat of nuclear war.
Benedict Cumberbatch has become known for playing smart character who know exactly what they want to do and how to go about it. While they might not always initially succeed you’re sure that they eventually will and a smart resolution will be found. There’s a different flavour to his portrayal of British businessman Greville Wynne. Certainly comfortable in his element – around a table with potential customers, some good food and a couple of glasses of whatever will further relax the conversation after a casual round of golf – he finds himself thrown into the much harsher, colder and increasingly tense environment of Soviet Moscow; at the height of the Cold War.
Sent by representatives from MI6 (Angus Wright) and the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan) Cumberbatch’s mild-mannered family-man finds himself working closely with Russian official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Penkovsky has been secretly providing the British and American governments with top secret information relating to Russia’s nuclear programme, and increasing links to Cuba. Greville goes from his easy-to-play role of knowledgeable tradesman to an out-of-depth courier between the two parties. His aim: To reduce the threat of nuclear war.
Frequently away from home his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), begins to fear that her husband is having an affair. It’s a shame to see Buckley already reduced to the ‘Concerned Wife’ role, however, she does her best with what she has and, as expected, gives a strong performance – in a film which holds many good performances. There are a handful of other slight clichés within the course that the film travels, but it certainly never feels dull. A feeling that its beginning to run its course between the final 15-20 minutes of the almost two hour run-time does begin to settle in, but there are still points to be interested in that hook your engagement and keep you invested within the unfolding narrative.
It’s during this slight tonal shift that arrives during the slightly rushed events of this point that a more sinister side of the film is shown – while still being kept within the boundaries of a 12 certificate. All after a long build-up with a handful of tense patches during various montages, night-time discussions in quiet, shaded streets and attempts to escape the country – particularly in the far-from-easy case of Penkovsky. Such moments help to keep the viewer’s attention and help to hold up the standard narrative of this British spy drama. You do wish that there could be perhaps more time spent observing the effects on Greville of what he is being put through as the film seems to want to draw to a close. It feels as if it has more to say, and it shows some of it, however it knows that its at risk of going on for too long. Perhaps if around 15-20 minutes of the lengthy build-up were removed the fluidity of the piece would feel that bit more relaxed and help with the viewer’s engagement and connection to the central character as the film nears the final stages.
Yet, overall, The Courier mostly manages to avoid dips and blandness thanks to its political shades, threats and reminders of just what is at stake for the characters. Both in terms of the consequences if they’re found out and what could happen if they don’t succeed. There are plenty of scenes set in darkened archive rooms, government offices with hidden possessions and drawers, stalking agents and questioning KGB members. The reminders are ever present throughout the film, and they help to keep a consistent tone throughout, establishing the tension during some of the later escape attempts and montages, as the film prepares to come to a drawn out close. Much like its main character its consistently comfortable for the most part, although with some rough edges, but begins to get a bit bumpy when moving into different territory.
While holding a slightly overlong, occasionally conventional, narrative, The Courier holds enough interest and intrigue to have some effective tension and character moments that make it an engaging, if fairly standard, British spy drama.