Review: Cold War thriller 'The Courier' serves up the goods
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Joining a laundry list of Cold War pics, Dominic Cooke’s thrilling and superbly performed “The Courier” carves out a singular identity. While the concept is fairly straightforward and the narrative doesn’t offer a silver of originality, “The Courier” sees Benedict Cumberbatch at his most transformative: playing an lowly salesman who gets unexpectedly roped into a CIA and MI6 covert operation amid the tension-filled Cuban Missile Crisis. A tight screenplay by Tom O’Connor keeps events dense and focused and a terrific ensemble (Jessie Buckly elevates an otherwise thankless role as the concerned wife) anchors Cooke’s film with a heightened sense of realism.
Cumberbatch plays English businessman Greville Wynne, who spends his days hashing out manufacturing deals with wealthy entrepreneurs. He seems to enjoy his job and the ability to come home and kiss his patient wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) after a long day, but it's his quiet, under-the-radar status that makes him the perfect individual to make contact with Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). At the behest of CIA and MI6 agents, notably Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), Greville accepts the gig to become Oleg’s information smuggler, providing valuable intel on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) who’s unpredictability in regards to nuclear launch codes makes him a threat across the globe.
Oleg - who works on the Committee for Scientific Research - brings Greville to Moscow, poses him as a standard businessman, and slips information through an array of classic spy troupes. For two years, Greville (nicknamed Ironbark) peddles messages across borders undetected, labeling them as “business trips” if anyone asks. But this is a spy thriller and anybody purchasing a ticket understands things will go South quickly, and “The Courier” doesn’t disappoint. What could have been another lowball interpretation of historical figures turns into something quite rewarding, and the main relationship between Oleg and Greville drives the picture with Cumberbatch like you’ve never seen him before.
The Oscar nominee conveys the evolution of Greville from wily, sarcastic businessmen to a father with stakes in the game easily alongside Buckly who gets mileage out of her observational character. Performances are only half the battle, and O’Connor’s screenplay loses some luster in the final act, leaning a bit too heavily into melodramatic cliches that sour what came before, holding “The Courier” back from greatness. However, the majority of the picture is ripe with suspense that any minor transgressions don't stifle the film’s momentum. You’ve seen this narrative repackaged a dozen times before, but when done at this level with numerous high caliber performances, it’s also hard to resist.
THE COURIER opens in theaters Friday, March 19th