reviewed by Noah Griffin
Director: Dominic Cooke
Premiere Date (Theaters): March 19, 2021
The Courier is a movie that tracks one of the most noteworthy events of 20th-century espionage: a series of intelligence leaks that was vital in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. With such a premise, one might then suspect possibly a film of white-knuckle tension (à la Three Days of the Condor or Munich) or maybe one with an intoxicating atmosphere filled with mystery and maybe more free-floating tension (à la Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). In actuality, The Courier carries neither such values; it’s, frankly, a less artful, more British Bridge of Spies, with about the same amount of Dad Movie energy, though.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as an ordinary businessman by the name of Greville Wynne, who out of the blue one day in 1960 is invited to have lunch with two people (Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) who claim to be from the Board of Trade. And it’s there where the two cryptically offer Wynne a job: A Russian officer, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), has established contact with them, seeking to reveal nuclear-related secrets in an effort to prevent a potential war, and MI6 needs somebody, with no connection to any government, to help them communicate with him.
As clever as this real-life scheme was, it presents a rather large challenge for director Dominic Cooke, who’s tasked with producing anxiety from what broadly looks like a series of mundane business meetings. His go-to move seems to be the montage, and he does deliver some solid ones, leaning hard on Penkovsky sneakily snapping photos of documents in dark file rooms. Cooke’s ensemble is definitely helpful, with Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley (as Wynne’s wife) both helping enliven their flimsy roles. But they’re not enough to help boost up the film’s serious lack of suspense; for a movie that’s steeped in the classic tropes of espionage, the whole endeavor is rather even-keeled.
To a certain extent, that feels in line for a movie about an ordinary chap who’s dropped into the deep end of a war of espionage. Yet The Courier still aims to achieve a moral momentum that its limited emotional range doesn’t have the foundation to support. The film’s spare amount of tense moments are between Cumberbatch and Buckley, as the latter suspects that her husband’s constant trips to the USSR might be connected to an affair. Yet that begins to get worn down a bit into insipidness as Tom O’Connor’s script flirts with cliché and struggles to configure the historical events into something concurrent.
For a movie that at least initially seemed concerned with the way intimate relationships have and can shape world events, The Courier strangely emphasizes the isolation of its characters in its final act rather than their selflessness to one another. As striking and effective as Cumberbatch’s severe weight loss can be towards the end, Cooke’s shifting focus to Wynne’s desolation rather than the relationships he had around him does the movie no favors. The Courier’s overall stubbornness to only come to be affecting in its finale, seems to be rather appropriate for what its opening title card reads: “This film is based on true events.” It’s such words that represent both the film’s few strengths and its many limitations.