Benedict Cumberbatch’s new espionage spy thriller, “The Courier” could be considered the end to his British intelligence trilogy. His third British intelligence film and the second to be set during the Cold War after previously appearing in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and “The Imitation Game” (2014). He also re-teams with Dominic Cooke, who directed the 2016 mini series “The Hollow Crown” with Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch
Debuting at the 2018 Sundance to favorable reviews, “The Courier” has seen many delays with one of them being the pandemic, is finally seeing the light of day. Premiering in theaters when multiplexes were trying to slowly open, it is now available on Blu Ray and digital. “The Courier” is based on true events, taking place during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Cumberbatch portrays the real life world-travelling British businessman named Greville Wynne, who finds himself called into service by the Brit’s MI6 and the CIA in order to connect with a Russian man named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). The MI6 and CIA is fearful that “hothead” Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev cannot be trusted and must be stopped, especially when it comes to the missiles in Cuba.
Oleg works covertly with Wynne, as the pair play a dangerous game in making the existence of the missiles in Cuba known to the American government and of course, to President Kennedy. Over the course of this assignment the two became oddly close and that is what is at the heart of the tale. Even though we know their efforts would prove successful and the world would be saved and the Cuban Missile Crisis had eased after 13 tense days in October. This is the story of what led up to that, as well as what happened afterwards to these two men who put their lives on the line in crucial ways.
Benedict Cumberbatch (also the executive producer) is ideally cast here, in one of his finest screen performances since “The Imitation Game” and the Showtime series “Patrick Melrose”. Cumberbatch had to lose 21 pounds for his role as an English salesman who found himself helping avert calamity during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cumberbatch described the process “horrible” in having to lose the weight. While the dramatic weight loss left him feeling “very vulnerable”, it helped him emotionally prepare for the strenuous role. He gives a truly committed and transformative performance as the last half-hour very demonstrably showcases.
Directed with efficiency and precise skill by Dominic Cooke, with a screenplay by Tom O’Connor (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard”) that echoes the works of John le Carre and a little bit of Tom Clancy. “The Courier” is really pure LeCarré without being written by the great spy master, but Cooke and his screenwriter are smart enough to make this a memorable piece about two men caught up in world shattering events. Cooke’s film unravels just how integral their actions would come to literally saving the world from destruction.
Cooke also let’s us see the personal side of each major character, with Jessie Buckley nicely playing Wynne’s wife Sheila. There is also glimpses into Penkovsky’s family life in offering uniquely human touches that is not often seen in these kinds of film. Also excellent is “Marvelous Mrs. Masiel” star Rachel Brosnahan, playing a CIA operative instrumental in bringing Greville and Oleg together. Her no-nonsense character, Emily, is a mix of other CIA figures we have seen before in movies. But with Cooke and O’Connor deciding to make a woman central to the events is something at the time that didn’t really happen. They use a little dramatic liberty to add a spotlight on the efforts of women in various positions during this time is something that movies rarely tackled.
Cooke digs a little deeper into the paranoia and tentative friendship of the arrangement. “The Courier” gets substantially darker within its second half, developing into an examination of psychological exhaustion and imprisonment. “The Courier” is also relatively fast-paced for a pot boiler spy thriller, running a lean hour and fifty minutes. Cooke wastes very little time throughout, making every scene feel essential with a pace that never lags.
It’s one of the most entertaining and smartest spy films to emerge in sometime, in what is a welcome throw-back to the spy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s. But one can only hope it will be an awards shoe-in for Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s as good as he’s ever been in a lead role. “The Courier” is completely compelling and one of the best films of 2021.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)