The Cuban Missile Crisis looms in the tense spy thriller The Courier. Based on fact, it tells the story of America’s most valuable source of information about Russia during this tumultuous period. With nuclear war a real possibility, a high stakes cat-and-mouse game plays out.
Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is a high-ranking Russian official. But he fears what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) is capable of. Penkovsky wants to prevent the unimaginable from happening. To that end, he takes a risk by passing on valuable intel through a couple of random Americans he hears speaking, asking them to take it to the US Embassy. One does and that sets off a chain of events that will see literally thousands of documents photographed and shared. With a lack of resources, the CIA calls on M-I6 for support. They determine the best way to avoid suspicion is to enlist the services of a civilian, as distinct from a seasoned spy.
So M-I6 selects British salesman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the conduit for extracting information. He has done business in Eastern Europe before, but not in Russia. His handlers expressly tell Wynne not to share his endeavours with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and young son, Andrew (Keir Hills). That, in itself, could prove problematic because he has been caught out before, having had an affair. As far as the espionage goes, all progresses well … until things go horribly wrong.
It takes quite a while for the story to build momentum and kick up a gear. The filmmakers – writer Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke – seem to take an inordinately long time to establish the set up and then deal with a significant hiccup before bringing the story arc home.
Cumberbatch is convincing in the lead role – a man who moves outside his comfort zone. It is an excellent portrayal of a man on edge. I also appreciated the calm demeanour of Ninidze in depicting a man with a greater purpose, intent on “doing the right thing”. I liked the contrasting styles attributed to the Americans and the British, particularly as seen through the eyes of Rachel Brosnahan as CIA agent Emily Donovan (CIA) and Angus Wright as M-I6 operative Dickie Franks (M-I6). Buckley plays an important part as Wynne’s no-nonsense wife, who suspects he’s up to no good.
There is an authenticity about the sets and settings, transporting us back in time to the 1960s. The Courier casts a nefarious picture of a time the world was on the precipice. It could have been tightened to maximise its impact, but is still well worth a look.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.