It’s 1960 and tensions between the USSR and the US are at breaking point. The threat of nuclear war has become a dangerously real possibility and Western governments are growing desperate to know what’s happening in Moscow. A glimmer of hope reveals itself when a Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), decides to leak highly classified intelligence to the CIA and MI6. However, the Western governments need a go-between who won’t raise suspicion with the KGB. Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a suave English businessman who hesitantly agrees to aid in the espionage – though he isn’t entirely sure exactly what he’s getting himself into.
From here on, director Dominic Cooke’s The Courier (premiering as Ironbark at Sundance) becomes a slow-burn period drama that cautiously piles on the suspense as Wynne gets more involved in the situation. However, despite the global scale on which these events took place, Tom O’Connor’s (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) ambitious script strives to tell a more intimate story concerning the budding friendship between Wynne and Penkovsky. Cumberbatch and Ninidze share a handful of touching moments together, with both actors displaying a warmth that resonates with the film’s poignant message of political change.
Unfortunately, though, this friendship isn’t given the attention needed for the full effect of their ordeal to be felt. With a story spanning multiple years condensed into less than two hours, much of the pair’s time spent together is reduced to montage sequences that serve to illustrate how they pulled off their deception under the Kremlin’s nose. This lack of development likewise spills over to Wynne’s fractured marriage with his wife Sheila (played by a fantastic Jesse Buckley, who, once again, proves she can’t put a foot wrong). A past infidelity has stirred mistrust in Sheila as her husband spends more time in Moscow. And that’s as far as the script is willing to take this idea.
The Courier tells a remarkable historic account that sees Cumberbatch deliver one of his finest performances to date. He’s joined by a strong supporting cast, however the script fails to flesh out the central relationships enough for the payoff to hit as hard as it should.
The Courier is released nationwide on 13th August 2021.
Watch the trailer for The Courier here: