The Courier (3 stars)

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch plays real-life hero Greville Wynne in this high-stakes tale of Cold War espionage

This elegant if slightly uninspired spin on a remarkable true-life tale shines a light on the low-key heroics involved in espionage, where holding one's nerve, knowing who to trust and when to walk away are key to survival. Benedict Cumberbatch bags another plum role as Greville Wynne, an ordinary British businessman who becomes the courier of the title, transporting vital intelligence and putting himself in considerable peril in the process.

Revered theatre director Dominic Cooke's first feature, 2017's On Chesil Beach, didn't exactly set the screen alight and this is a step up, though he doesn't fully exploit the potential of the material. Beginning in 1960, The Courier sees cheesy salesman Wynne plying his trade in Eastern Europe before he's recruited by Dickie Franks from MI6 (Angus Wright), who is working with the CIA's Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). The pair see Wynne's work and inherent innocuousness as the perfect cover to make contact with a promising new Soviet informant, the extremely well-connected Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze), who would prove an invaluable source of information during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The script by Tom O'Connor (writer of The Hitman's Bodyguard and its recent sequel) doesn't deliver particularly on emotional depth and narrative detail, seeming like a fairly superficial treatment of these crucial Cold War events, but it's pacey and glossily shot by regular Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt. It might have been more interesting to further probe the psychology and motivations of Penkovsky, who it seems betrayed his country for righteous reasons, and to perhaps move him to the centre of the story, because as fascinating as Wynne's situation is he is the less conflicted of the two.

Ninidze brings a good deal of anguish and tension to his performance and there's fine, if frustratingly peripheral, work from the great Jessie Buckley as Wynne's wife, Sheila, who interprets his suspicious behaviour incorrectly due to a previous indiscretion. Yet it all revolves around Cumberbatch's turn; he gets his awards-pitch moments as things get ugly for Wynne, but is most impressive in the early scenes. Less self-assured than we've seen him before, the actor convinces as a humdrum, slightly sleazy character wading way out of his depth.

Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 13 August.

The Courier

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • UK / US
  • 1h 51min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Dominic Cooke
  • Written by: Tom O’Connor
  • Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright

Cold War thriller about an unassuming businessman (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is recruited by MI6.