The Courier Movie Review: A well-made historical drama
A fine build-up of tension and some great acting from the leads lend credence to this film set in a very significant period of the Cold War
The Courier makes a strong fist of telling a crucial tale of espionage based on historical events. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the film employs an effective storytelling technique that accentuates the imminent threat of nuclear conflict between the Soviets and Americans. What renders the narrative all the more interesting is the build-up of tension.
This tension becomes increasingly palpable owing to the fact that the larger goings-on — Khrushchev’s deployment of nuclear warheads in Cuba, the US on high alert for an immediate counter strike, and so on — are never really shown. Yes, they are addressed through dialogue (what could likely happen, what is already happening) by various cogs in the machine that constitute the central characters, but the events themselves remain behind the curtain for the most part. Aside from stray snippets of Kennedy on TV, Khrushchev addressing the members of his political bureau, and a spy plane taking photographs of a nuclear site, little is seen. By focusing on the ‘what if they go to war’ line through mock business trips, clandestine conversations, and the exchange of top-secret military information, Cooke presents the looming cloud of conflict as an unpredictable unknown to be feared.
Director: Dominic Cooke
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright
Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze put in fine performances as English businessman Greville Wynne and high-ranking Soviet official Col Oleg Penkovsky. And to see both characters (especially the latter, who has a lot more to lose) take serious risks, in a desperate attempt to avert a catastrophic nuclear exchange, is nerve-wracking, to say the least. For all intents and purposes, the two men are at different ends of the spectrum — one, an unsuspecting Western businessman being manipulated by MI6 to be a conduit for vital intelligence from the Soviet Union; the other, a high-ranking communist party official ready to put his life on the line to avert an impending nuclear war – and yet, both stand firmly on the side peace.
While Rachel Brosnahan (CIA agent Emily Donovan, sent to assist MI6 in the operation involving Wynne) isn’t as convincing as she ought to have been, Jessie Buckley (Sheila, Wynne’s wife) shines in her supporting role. Despite Wynne’s many attempts at hiding his real reasons for visiting the Soviet Union so often, she sees through his deception. But what exactly he’s up to, she cannot tell. She does suspect him of having an affair but isn’t entirely sure of it. She confides to a friend about his energy being different whenever he returns from Russia. The subtle cues she picks up on (as only an intimate partner would) are enacted so believably by Buckley, that you are given a window into their slowly crumbling marriage.
Though it has many things going for it (the pacing, the writing, the acting), there are a few instances that have me unconvinced. Foremost of these is an early scene when two agents from MI6 and the CIA (the former in the guise of a Ministry of Trade official) meet Wynne. Wynne suspects the meeting to be about business as usual, but when their true intentions for him are revealed, he buys into their scheming too quickly. Two minutes of incredulity (“I’m not a spy”, “What if I get caught?”) even from a top-class Cumberbatch isn’t enough to save the day. While it is a witty sequence, with subtle barbs being traded from both sides, it seems rather unlikely that the real meeting between these parties was as easy or smooth. Convincing someone with no prior experience of espionage to take up the riskiest assignment of his life, by saying things like, “Wouldn’t you want to avert war?”, “You’d be doing us a big favour”, just doesn’t cut it.
The film also suffers from the western gaze, as the agenda of the British and the Americans (self-anointed custodians of the supposed free world) comes off as 'oh so superior'. The treatment of its average Soviet citizen/official is borne of prejudice, reducing everyone to unfeeling, cold, and judgemental caricatures.
The moments that stay with you are the ones between Wynne and Penkovsky. The latter introduces the Englishman to the Russian ballet, while he, in turn, takes his Soviet counterpart on a tour of the London pub experience. After years of capture, they are finally brought face to face. Broken in mind, body and spirit, and yet, they have managed to stay loyal to one another. An emotionally charged part of this extended scene gets to you. Wynne yells, “They withdrew the missiles from Cuba! It was because of you! It was because of you!”, even as Penkovsky is dragged away, never to be heard from again. Their friendship is what makes The Courier as much a deeply human story as one of high historical significance.