One look at The Courier’s title might suggest that Benedict Cumberbatch has gone into action territory, although it’s certainly more appealing than the original name: Ironbark.
The Oscar nominee is actually returning to a familiar genre – spy thriller – playing Greville Wynne, the real-life businessman who was recruit by British and US secret services during the 60s. Without any knowledge of the real mission, Wynn is asked to hold some trade meetings in the Soviet Union, where he makes contact with dignitary Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Penkovsky is a defector looking to pass vital information to The West. As the stakes get higher, Wynn must make a choice between his personal safety and his country’s future.
From Red Joan to Bridge of Spies, thrillers about ‘ordinary’ people involved in espionage have found some popularity in cinemas. The stylish nostalgia combined with the authenticity of a story based on real life makes for an interesting combination, and director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) uses those elements to keep the tension simmering. While the first half is essentially a series of meetings, a strong cast create a horrific bogeyman in the form of the Soviet authorities, and the consequences of being caught. It’s a Western-centric perspective, but what it loses in complexity it gains in pace as the threat behind the door (or in this case, iron curtain) becomes larger in its absence.
Just when you wondering if it will be all private clubs and trips to the ballet, the final act takes a dark twist as Wynn’s worst fears are realised. This enables Cumberbatch to evolve Wynn over the course of the film, from a booze loving salesman to a man in the pit of despair, needing to find the will to survive. We’ve almost come to expect this level of class from the actor, but it should be said that ensemble around him play their part. Ninidze is terrific as the man helping Wynn through the experience, reminding him of causes bigger than themselves in a performance filled with dignity and courage.
The brilliant Jess Buckley is wasted as Wynn’s wife Sheila, bringing personality to his home life but limited by quite a slight supporting role. Rachel Brosnahan fares better as a fictional CIA agent, who is the good cop to Angus Wright’s stuffy MI6 man. However, that doesn’t stop her from delivering a chilling speech about The Four Minute Warning when Wynn shows doubts about co-operating.
The Courier isn’t quite the breath-taking labyrinth of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Cumberbatch’s other Cold War thriller), but for those looking for some old-fashioned spy games, this accomplishes its mission.
The Courier is in cinemas from 13th August