Courier, The (United Kingdom, 2020)

March 17, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Courier, The Poster

To this day, there remains uncertainty as to the value of the intelligence information provided by Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Was he, as the official narrative asserts, the highest-ranking Soviet official to turn traitor and act as a double agent? Or was he a plant whose “defection” was a ruse designed to sow disinformation? The Courier, which presents the situation from the perspective of the British agent used to ferry information between Penkovsky and the cooperating MI6 and CIA, accepts the former explanation and uses it to develop a sometimes-riveting old-fashioned spy thriller that is occasionally reminiscent of the fictional works of John Le Carre and Len Deighton.

The Courier transpires in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis which, to this day, is the closest the world has come to a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia (then the USSR). The Kennedy/Khrushchev stare-down in October 1962 represented the apex of the Cold War. Kennedy won the game of chicken in part because of information provided by his intelligence services, much of which is credited to have come from Penkovsky. A decorated hero of the USSR, Penkovsky had access to a motherlode of sensitive information (including the fact that the Soviet nuclear stockpile was considerably less impressive than it was claimed to be) and, although he considered himself to be a patriot, he believed that inaction on his part could lead to the nuclear destruction of his country.

Penkovsky reached out to MI6 and the CIA. Chief operatives for both the U.K., Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), and the U.S., Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), carefully considered how to establish a conduit with the Soviet icon without blowing his cover. Their eventual solution: send in a businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), with no previous experience as a spy and allow him to make contact. At the time, Penkovsky was deemed to be above reproach and allowed to travel to the West to conduct business, thereby opening an avenue for the information to flow. Eventually, however, the USSR became suspicious about both their own hero and his courier and took actions to stem the leak and use typical KGB methods to ascertain the truth.

The spy movie genre is wide enough to encompass a variety of types, from the action-adventure brand typified by the James Bond pictures to a more cerebral variety. The Courier, with its basis in historical fact, fits in the latter category. It replaces action scenes and stunts with slow-burn suspense. The Cuban Missile Crisis background adds an additional layer of tension to the proceedings. Even though we as an audience know how the global situation will be resolved, the characters don’t and it informs their actions and decisions.

Benedict Cumberbatch, a chameleon actor who can play almost any type from superhero to ordinary guy, is a good match for Greville. At the beginning, he’s superficially charming but, as the story develops, he grows a conscience and becomes more human and relatable. Soviet-born Merab Ninidze, an actor of some repute in Europe and Russia (who had a small role in Bridge of Spies), presents Penkovsky’s internal crisis as a struggle between resolute determination and self-torture. He believes he is saving his country by betraying it. His eventual decision to defect to the West is made out of necessity, not because he has an overriding love for British culture.

While espionage thrillers in the 007/Mission Impossible vein rely on spectacle to elevate the pulse and obscure plot hiccups, The Courier is content to tell an engaging story and rely on the circumstances and characters to hold the viewer’s interest. With this focus, one might easily consider The Courier to be a throwback to a time when narrative trumped special effects and storytelling was more important than fast editing. Dominic Cooke’s unadorned style and pacing work for the material and the result is a spy story worth telling and experiencing.

Courier, The (United Kingdom, 2020)

Director: Dominic Cooke
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Angus Wright, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley
Home Release Date: 2021-06-01
Screenplay: Tom O’Connor
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2021-03-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1