There’s nothing wrong with Bond or Bourne, but the stakes in those spy franchises are always artificial as you know the hero is never going to die. That’s not true in THE COURIER. Unless you know the true story of Londoner Greville Wynne and his role as a Western courier of Soviet secrets during the Cold War, you will be fretting for him from his first steps inside the Iron Curtain to his last. This is a character-driven espionage thriller, a true story, and it’s all the more incredible because of it. The film may not have the snap, crackle, and pop of 007, but its stakes are higher and its effect much more palpable. And for my money, it’s the first great film of 2021.
In the early 60s, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union with an erratic but iron fist and many inside the Kremlin were doing what they could to temper his more volatile impulses. To avoid his bloviating about WWIII, some subordinates were willing to leak Russian information to the West to keep the premier in check. One of them was high-ranking GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a drolly elegant, and cool as a cucumber Ruskie who believed in the Revolution but not in Khrushchev’s maniacal managerial style.
The Brits and Americans knew that Penkovsky wanted to help tame this beast, but they needed a courier to travel in and out of Moscow to retrieve his Kremlin secrets. Enter Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an electrical engineer familiar with Penkovsky from some Soviet business interactions. American attaché Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan, blonde here, but still honking like Mrs. Maisel) and MI-6 liaison Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) recruit Wynne over a veddy British lunch at a gentleman’s club, convincing him to do his duty for Queen and country as a newly anointed gentleman spy.
At first, Wynne is terrified of the task. He’s a modest fellow, happy with his sales job, smart wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), and clever kid Andrew (Keir Hills). About the only pretending he knows how to do is whiff golf putts to gain sympathy from clients so they’ll buy his merchandise. But soon enough, he agrees to fly into Russia and become a spy. It’s rough going at first, but soon enough, he’s playing the part and getting a thrill out of being so important.
Cumberbatch can play cold and arrogant better than just about anyone these days, but here he’s called upon to play a sweet, regular guy. He’s spectacular at it, and this may very well be his greatest performance this side of SHERLOCK. With his hair slicked back and a fussy mustache atop his lip, Cumberbatch’s Wynne is so uncool he could almost be Mr. Bean. During his first trip to Moscow, he looks like an out-of-town rube in his small fedora and sheepskin coat. The sight of him, this small man, walking about the intimidating streets in the dead of a Russian winter is one of the film’s slyest moments. He’s dwarfed by the mission, literally and figuratively.
Still, even when Wynne is exceedingly vulnerable, Cumberbatch wisely sprinkles bits of cunning in his character. Wynne turns out to be a very quick study and he discovers that bamboozling Soviet officials isn’t that much different than charming reluctant clients.
His Russian counterpart starts to trust Wynne wholly and regards him as a faithful ally. Then, one evening when they attend an opera together, the two become true friends. The film is wise to not make too much of their coupling, either as a bromance, or something latent. They are soldiers ultimately, two enlisted men dependent upon each other, in the trenches together.
Yet as engaging as all of this is, and Abel Korzeniowski’s music often plays up the caper aspects to the story while recalling bits of the score of 1964’s TOPKAPI, director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor instill a quiet sense of dread throughout. As we watch all of Wynne’s interactions, we don’t know who he can trust any more than he does. It puts us in his shoes brilliantly.
The two main characters develop a sort of Cold War “Odd Couple” vibe. Ninidze’s Penkovsky is as dry as one of 007’s martinis and Cumberbatch’s Wynne is all earnest and striving, trying to do good, trying to be appreciated. And yet, as fascinating as their relationship is onscreen, it’s Wynne’s marriage that gives the film its most vivid sparkle. Wynne’s spouse is more than just the proverbial wife role; Sheila is smart, loving, and witty, and every bit her husband’s equal. And Buckley does wonders in the part, giving yet another sterling onscreen performance. You only wish there was more of her in the film.
At the hour mark, the film takes a decidedly dark turn and some of the material in the second half is a touch too traumatic in tone. The filmmakers are trying to show exactly how harrowing things got, but some of it is so violent and offputting, it becomes difficult to watch.
The production values are superb throughout, really capturing the 60s in every detail. This film could almost be a companion piece to THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. It captures the gravitas of history too, reminding us that Bond was a fantasy for the time, and still is today. Real spies don’t drive Aston Martin’s or obsess over caviar and Baccarat. Spooks are real people trying to keep their cover in a world that can all too quickly turn deadly. That point is delivered emphatically by THE COURIER.