Directed by Dominic Cook, whose film debut was the adaptation of On Chesil Beach, and is also widely known for his vast body of work in theatre, The Courier is a compelling, taut story that has an element of a stage setting in its strongest moments, but that’s an absolute positive in this case.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, The Courier tells the incredible true story of two men who, quite literally, changed the world forever – but quietly, and risked their lives doing it. Set in the early 1960s, when the Cold War was at its peak for the unknown and very much near the brink of a nuclear war, this spy drama/thriller tells us the tale of everyday British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) who is recruited by M16 and the CIA to initially pass confidential information out of Russia and back to the UK, for the intelligence services.
While Wynne initially is able to do this within the business role of his job, which is basically industry and trade between Russia and the UK, his contact is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a man who he becomes friends with – and so the risks they take begin to get greater, as they realise the severity of the knowledge they’re gathering, and how it could become WW3 – as it’s linked directly to the threat of a nuclear attack: the secrecy of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Working with Rachel Brosnahan’s excellent CIA operative Emily Donovan, and M16’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), Wynne and Penkovsky do everything they can to keep their meetings ‘normal’ and unsuspicious but, of course, this is 1960s Russia and so everyone is being watched. While at first, they easily keep their relationship professional and trade-related, over time they both meet each other’s families (with Cumberbatch’s Wynne being married to Jessie Buckley’s outstanding, nuanced Sheila), and a deeper understanding and welfare concerns develops. These are two everyday men, with a family, who feel that to do the right thing, is the best thing, but how far will they have to do to help not just the intelligence services but also, quite literally, the world?
A story like The Courier seems so unbelievable that initially it’s difficult to fathom the world not that long ago, but it’s very real and I personally can’t believe we haven’t heard this story before. Cumberbatch in the lead as an everyman is perfect casting, he’s believable as a family man and has the depths of emotion as things get tougher. His gravitas is everything you’d hope for, he’s both clear and concise, but also you sense the fear of his situation – when things start to get deeply serious and trust me, if you don’t know the story, find out this way.
Merab Ninidze is also exceptional as Penkovsky, another likeable character who may be working within the Russian government but is clearly concerned about what’s going on – and willing to do what it takes, even if it risks his life, his family and the respect he’s gathered for years from his peers. As briefly mentioned earlier, the theatre-type setting works for a film like this, the strongest scenes are the ones between characters and with a tight script from Tom O’Connor that everyone excels with.
The Courier is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt, the ordinary colour palette is anything but boring with the everyday being the focus, with wide Russian location shots fully representing the wealth of the story, and Wynne’s small place in a huge world. And, interestingly, in contrast as the film progresses and things get more intense, we literally find both characters’ worlds smaller on screen, with an enormously powerful, literal single shot through a prison window which is deeply haunting, and equally as clever.
Throw in Abel Korzeniowski’s stirring score, and The Courier is a welcomingly moving film, with an indie edge, which tells a powerful, captivating story that’ll keep you hooked right up to the end. Watch it. Tell others about it but if you don’t know the story, don’t look it up until you’ve seen this human encounter with all the right messages.
As well as the option of Audio Commentary from Cook, you’ve got to watch the documentary On the Brink: Making The Courier, as it’s a seamless extra for this film, showing us the collaborative process, and how much everyone is involved, including Benedict Cumberbatch – and their individual relationships and history making films and theatre together. It really highlights the beauty of the film beneath the espionage: that of a friendship, which is what makes The Courier so quite different than other Spy thrillers.
As well as Cumberbatch, we hear from the director, writer, producers and co-stars Buckley and Brosnahan. Plus a look into production, costumes and the whole ensemble. In truth, the more I think about this film, the more I admire the true story itself but also the production, and how much you’re pulled into their story, and care for their outcome. It’s great to see how they got the likes of Merab Ninidze involved, another complex character in a captivating story, and how easy his chemistry is with Cumberbatch’s character as well. It’s an insightful feature that adds even more depth to the world of The Courier.