Film Review: The Courier

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Written by: Tom O’Connor

Set against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race, The Courier tells the extraordinary true story of Greville Wynne.

It is August 1960, and Russia is causing concern on the international stage. Both the CIA and MI6 are trying to piece together what is happening under President Kruschev’s secretive regime. The agencies secure a promising lead, when they receive a letter from one of Kruschev’s agents. Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze) is only too aware of the risk he takes.

Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) from the CIA and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) from MI6 meet: they need to send someone into Moscow to reach out to Penkovsky. They come up with the idea that this should be someone completely unknown to the KGB; a civilian. Franks finds his man at the local golf club – a salesman, with experience of travelling to Eastern Europe. Greville Wynne is fed the proposition. Under the guise of building business links with the West, Wynne is the perfect cover. No links to Government, a man living very much under the radar. Greville (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels to Moscow, meets with Penkovsky and information is passed – maps, documents – from the USSR into the hands of MI6.

Cumberbatch has tackled historical roles before – notably playing Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. His ability in locating the character through physicality serves him well here: Wynne’s unassuming, slightly stooped posture gives way to a more confident, charged man as Wynne’s trips to Moscow become more frequent. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects him of having an affair, as Wynne gets lost in the aphrodisiac of danger. Cumberbatch’s performance ensures that we see the change in Greville, before he realises it himself.

In the more understated role, Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky is phenomenal. Ninidze’s previous credits include a recurring role in Homeland, and he is visibly comfortable working within the spy thriller genre. Both men are portrayed in Tom O’Connor’s script as fallible; but where Greville is focused on the immediate game of survival, Oleg recognises that he is part of a much larger picture. As Penkovsky agrees to engage with the CIA, he asks to be used as a “tool for peace”.

Ninidze plays support with the confidence of a male lead. His scenes with Cumberbatch, as Penkovsky takes Wynne to the ballet for a taste of “real Russia”, are crucial grounding moments where the film is in danger of getting lost in espionage by-play. This is very much the film’s weak spot: the muted palette; hushed conversations – we have seen it all before. It becomes a cinematic shorthand, and at times, the authenticity of the story gets lost in the styling and gestures..

While this is a film built on great performances, (Angus Wright and Jessie Buckley are also superb), The Courier never quite succeeds in letting us into the emotional core of Wynne and Penkovsky’s relationship. The Courier ends up feeling like fiction, rather than the incredible true story it aims to tell.

The Courier is on digital 29 October and Blu-ray & DVD 1 November from Lionsgate UK.

The Reviews Hub Score:

An extraordinary true story

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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