Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps better than he's ever been, and is given wonderful support by his ensemble in "The Courier," a well-made thriller that - had it been released a bit earlier in the year - may have even been in the conversation for a few awards.
Those with even a passing knowledge of American History have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s, and how the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear war with The Soviet Union, then led by the hard-fisted Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov). Our President at the time, John F. Kennedy, was able to avoid disaster despite the escalation, but what you might not know is that a great deal of U.S. intelligence dealing with Soviet missile bases in Cuba actually came from one man.
This man, code-named HERO by the CIA, was a Soviet military intelligence official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). He was able to get vital information to the UK and U.S. that literally changed the course of history. Without his intel, Soviet nuclear missiles might have been placed in Cuba without the Allies ever knowing, until it was too late.
If that's not compelling on its own, Penkovsky's is not even the main story in which "The Courier" is focused on. Benedict Cumberbatch plays British salesman, Greville Wynne, an average man by all accounts is approached by the U.K.'s MI6 (Britain's Secret Intelligence Agency), specifically Agent Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA representative Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan), who recruit him as somewhat of a civilian spy. His sole purpose is to establish contact with Penkovsky within Moscow, and smuggle Penkovsky's intel back to them. The Soviets would hopefully never suspect anything, given that Wynne does business all over the world.
Wynne's wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) though, does suspect that her husband is now acting strangely every time he travels to Moscow. She fears it's another woman, not knowing that it is actually something way more dangerous.
The film works incredibly well as a spy thriller, with Cumberbatch really showing new range in going from an unsuspecting rube to a crafty secret agent over the course of the movie. But the relationship/friendship that develops between Wynne and Penkovsky really gives the film an emotional heart. Russian actor Merab Ninidze is stunningly effective as Penkovsky, and if this film had actually been released during awards season, I could see both Ninidze and Cumberbatch creating some waves. Speaking of award recognition, "The Courier" has one of the best, most catchy scores you'll ever hear (by Abel Korzeniowski). It's unlikely that people will remember this film for next year's awards season, but really they should.
Even the side characters are given a bit more depth and time on-screen than we might be used to in this genre. "The Courier" doesn't break a lot of ground, but the familiar scenes and characters that it does give us all work. Take the wonderful Jessie Buckley, given the shameless role of the "concerned wife" that we've seen in countless films...but here, she really shows depth and strength, conveying the stakes at play with what her husband is up to. Even Rachel Brosnahan is given some great interactions with her British counterpart, lightly emphasizing how women were not yet taken all that seriously in these types of jobs, but also hinting at what was to come in the revolutions that would follow in the late 60s and 70s.
It's all tied together on the strength of Cumberbatch and Ninidze's performances, and is also exciting enough to engage those that might be leery of its somewhat boring title. But you can rest assured: "The Courier" delivers.
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, James Schofield, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright, Anton Lesser, Vladimir Chuprikov.
Directed by Dominic Cooke ("On Chesil Beach").
"The Courier" will be released on Friday, March 19th, 2021.
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