I’ve been fairly resistant to the charms of Benedict Cumberbatch; sure, he made a striking debut in Atonement, and was a great Hamlet on stage, but he’s probably visited the handsome-eccentric-genius well once too often (Sherlock to The Imitation Game), and might end up a typecast actor if he doesn’t grab the chance at some diverse roles. Director Dominic Cooke made a sensitive job of his Ian McEwan adaptation On Chesil Beach back in 2017, and despite the generic espionage title, The Courier is probably the best use of Cumberbatch’s acting talents as yet.
Shorn of the flamboyancy that he’s brought to Dr Strange and all manner of modish fantasy reboots, and minus his usual foppish hair, Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman with a wife, a kid, and no real impulse to play James Bond, although that spy archetype didn’t exist back in 1960. Wynne has plenty of know-how and experience, and is willing to make a few trips to far-off Moscow for a good cause. On site, Wynne works closely with Ironbark, a codename for the mysterious Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who feeds him information about the Soviet Arms programme. Of course, the Cuban missile crisis is on the horizon, and soon Wynne finds himself in danger, if not of death directly, but a long stint in the Gulag that adds up to pretty much the same fate.
Although the potential for drab is largely alleviated by lively support turns (Jessie Buckley as Sheila Wynne, Rachel Brosnahan as a CIA contact), The Courier stands on two strong planks in the central performances. Both Ninidze and Cumberbatch manage to convey a genuine friendship, and also reflect the agonising doubt of genuine espionage activity, where one slip may not lead to your own fatality, but might well cause that of a brother. With a good sense of period and a sharp look, The Courier more than delivers the realistic spy story promised.
The Courier also deserves praise for having a firm grasp of history. Films like Thirteen Days have attempted to dramatise the Cuban missile crisis with some success, but by focusing almost exclusively on the granular detail of Greville Wynne’s story, Cooke manages to revitalise a number of tropes that have become spy movie clichés. Perhaps the stiff-upper-lip suffering depicted here may not seem like the most urgent viewing when standards of international diplomacy have been dragged down to something of an all-time low by the collapse of the US reputation under Trump malfeasance, but The Courier’s wry cynicism about government diplomatic operations and individual heroism is welcome in its timing.
After many delays, The Courier is finally in UK cinemas from August 13 2021.
Thanks to Lionsgate UK awards and Organic Publicity for advance access to this film.