The Courier Synopsis: The true story of British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was unwittingly recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. Forming an unlikely partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky(Merab Ninidze), the two men work together to provide the crucial intelligence used to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Arriving into theaters long after its 2020 Sundance debut (originally titled Ironbark, the film was one of many affected by COVID-19), Dominic Cooke’s latest The Courier displays a shameless adoration for old-school, cloak-and-dagger espionage features. While somewhat mannered in its final form, Cooke’s nonpartisan exploration of a historical footnote delivers within its subdued frequency.
Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Conner parse through stuffy historical conventions to find a genuine camaraderie at the film’s center. Rather than forcing a truncated recap down audiences’ throats, the two wisely zero their focus towards the shared sacrifices partaken by Greville and Oleg. The kinship between the two radiates throughout the runtime, with both wrestling with their world-saving duties while somehow trying to keep their enigmatic lives afloat (their duplicitous existence forces them to lie to their loved ones). O’Conner’s screenplay thoughtfully distributes dimensions to both figures, ignoring overly-politicized trappings to convey the humanity behind their sacrifices.
The material’s poignant center allows both stars to show off their capabilities. Benedict Cumberbatch has certainly had more publicized performances, but the British stalwart offers some of his finest work to date as the reluctant Greville. Cumberbatch unleashes Greville’s sharp comedic tongue with bubbly charm while still keeping the figure’s internal strifes as the central focus. His partner-in-crime Merab Ninidze is easily the film’s breakout story as Oleg. After a career as an overlooked background player, Ninidze’s subdued disclosures of Oleg’s mounting circumstances strike a powerful chord. Both actors also share palpable chemistry within their mirrored roles, often relaying the character’s caring sentiments without much in terms of dialogue.
As the characters are trapped in a state of constant paranoia, Dominic Cooke’s exuberant direction finds visceral pulses to magnify their subconscious unease. Cooke packs a bevy of formal techniques (the score plays like a low-rent version of John Williams’ soaringly Spielbergian efforts), but he and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt subvert the traditionalist format with their own visual edge. The duo skillfully range between swift camera movements and intimately-framed reveals, baking a sense of distrust within every shadowy figure lurking around the corners.
The Courier works as a refreshing revival of the espionage genre, but I can’t ignore the deeper potentially left untapped. Cooke and O’Conner occasionally lose their narrative amidst their fixation on spinning an engaging yarn, leaving aside interesting thematic wrinkles in favor of straight-forward entertainment. I wish the duo were able to ruminate deeper with the character’s internal strifes, particularly within the ways patriotic obligations go deeper than a country’s care for an individual.
For what it attempts, The Courier delivers on its promises of refined crowd-pleasing fare. I am glad this title is getting a spotlight after spending a year on the shelf, and I hope it finds an agreeable audience during its theatrical run.
The Courier debuts in theaters on March 19th.
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