The Courier

The Courier is a well made and well acted cold war spy movie, but it doesn’t make the impact that it should.  Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, an everyman recruited by the CIA and MI6 to act as a courier for a high-level contact within the GRU.  I appreciated the production values used to recreate Sixties London and Moscow.  Several performances, including those by Rachel Brosnahan as a CIA agent and Merab Ninidze as spy Oleg Penkovsky stand out. The movie becomes affecting when both heroes are in prison, but before then, it’s a very slow boil.  Lightly recommended.

The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, a middle-aged machine salesman based in London.  He, his wife and son live in a small but respectable townhouse that I’m guessing many middle-class Londoners would call home.   Greville is an effective salesman, knowing when to throw an easy putt in order to seal the deal.  As he later confides, his primary talent is being able to hold his liquor.  As it turns out, Greville’s nondescript career and life make him the ideal recruit for the CIA and MI6.

Oleg Penkovsky, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the Russian Army and GRU Officer, realizes that Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev is far too unstable to have the ability to launch nuclear missiles.  In an extremely risky move, he approaches two American students vacationing in Moscow.  He gives them a letter and asks them to take it directly to the American Embassy.  The CIA is able to ascertain who sent the letter, and is extremely interested in any information he can provide that could help avoid a military confrontation.  With the cold war heating up between the US and the USSR, there is no way for an American to contact Oleg in person.  The CIA and MI6 believe that an ordinary English businessman, someone who travels regularly to Eastern Europe but has no discernible ties to the government, would be the ideal person to serve as courier for the information Oleg can provide.

MI6 agent Dickie Franks (a suitably weathered Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (a platinum Rachel Brosnahan) recruit Greville over lunch in a well-acted scene.  Both Franks and Donovan let Greville figure out who they work for and what they want him to do without saying anything.  (It’s a master class in acting subtlety.)  Greville initially declines, but Donovan knows how to manipulate someone into doing something they don’t want to do, by appealing to the heart and not the head.

Greville changes his mind and agrees to travel to Moscow under the auspices of setting up a new business alliance with Russian manufacturers.  After a presentation to party apparatchiks, Oleg invites him during lunch.  The two bond over their love of their children and family life.  One evening, Oleg tells Greville that he is the spy who reached out to the CIA.  He asks Greville to be nothing more than a courier, so that Greville can plausibly deny knowing what he’s actually doing if he’s caught by the KGB.  Greville is understandably concerned with the entire operation, and believes that if caught, he will be killed.  Oleg bluntly responds that it is he that will be killed, not Greville, and that Greville would likely be held in a Russian prison for a year or two.  Oleg is convinced that Greville is the right man for the job, stating that he’s essentially risking his own life on Greville’s ability to pull off his part of the mission.

Since Oleg is well versed in the tactics of the GRU and KGB, he only ever discusses their joint espionage operation while walking with Greville on empty streets.  The movie is a testament to old school spying.  Unlike today, there was no internet in the Sixties.  Back then, all classified information was stored in basement archives, with binders filled with schematics and photographs.  Oleg must take pictures of the classified material with a super-small spy camera and hand the negatives off to Alex before he flies back to London.  There’s another excellent scene showing how Oleg’s high-level clearance gets Greville past all airport security measures.

For its first hour, The Courier takes the slow-boil approach.  Greville is successful at getting information back to MI6 and the CIA, but the stress takes its toll on him.  His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) notices changes in Greville’s behavior: exercising, irritability and an increased sex drive.  She thinks Greville is having an affair with someone in Russia, and has a good reason to suspect this:  he had an affair years ago, for which she forgave him.  Of course, most men who are having affairs typically don’t want more sex at home, but Sheila is convinced something is up.

Tension rises significantly in the second hour, when the KGB forbids Oleg to travel to London for a manufacturing conference.  Greville insists that his handlers get Oleg out of Russia, but there is no way to do that now, what with the KGB suspecting Oleg of spying.  Greville insists on going back to Moscow one more time to coordinate an escape for Oleg and his family.  Unfortunately, the KGB have figured out how Oleg is hiding his secrets in his home, and take him and Greville into custody.

Greville is incarcerated and treated horribly.  He loses weight and nearly freezes to death in the deplorable conditions of his cell.  The KGB wants him to confess, but he refuses, sticking by his story of not knowing what was in the packages he was delivering back home.  After underplaying his role substantially in the first half, Cumberbatch gets to do some acting in the second half.  (He lost twenty pounds during a hiatus in filming, so that he would look like he was wasting away.)  After six months, Sheila is able to visit Greville and she tells him that Khrushchev turned the ships around.  When Greville sees Oleg for the last time, he relays that information to him, so that Oleg will know that his actions benefited the entire world.

As I mentioned before, Cumberbatch’s approach to Greville is to play him as a run-of-the-mill everyman.  This is suitable for the material to an extent, but it renders his characterization a bit paper-thin in the first half.  Cumberbatch is a very charismatic actor, and he definitely underplays Greville to a fault.  While I would not have expected him to chew scenery with the part, I feel there were ways he could have colored around the lines a bit, to bring out Greville’s idiosyncrasies more.  Maybe Cumberbatch was uncertain how to approach the part, and decided that toning down his acting was the only way he could realistically act like Greville.  I think fans of Cumberbatch’s more electric performances (Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Strange, The Imitation Game, Patrick Melrose) will be underwhelmed by his performance in The Courier.

Merab Ninidze shines as Oleg Penkovsky, bringing out the character’s motivation, trepidation and conviction in what he is doing.  It’s an excellent, well-rounded performance that succeeds where Cumberbatch’s does not.  I like how Ninidze’s Oleg personality subtly changes around his GRU counterparts, then with Greville, and also when he’s with his family.

Brosnahan is also very good here, in a role that is much more measured and contained than her famous turns in House of Cards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  She brings passion to the role, and it’s fun to watch her play off her graying counterparts at MI6.  More of Brosnahan’s level of energy would have helped the move be more engrossing than it turned out to be.
I’m not a huge fan of spy/espionage movies, but after seeing The Courier, I’m convinced I should seek out more for comparison.  I’ve never seen The Russia House, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Bridge of Spies.  I’m putting myself on notice.

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