Rating : ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Categorisation: Spy drama
Availability: Currently in cinemas
Plot: Based on a true story, The Courier takes us into the world of international espionage during the Cold War era. Dominic Cooke (director) and Tom O’Connor (screenwriter) tell the story of the real life character Grenville Wynne, a British businessman who is cajoled into smuggling Russian secrets for MI6. At first he is reluctant – he’s only a businessman who works with clients, some of whom live in Eastern Europe, and he has never even been to Russia. He also drinks too much, he’s not exactly fit, and he knows nothing of spying. But during the Cold War, people do their duty and he finally agrees. We then watch as Grenville’s clandestine activities in Russia unfold, and we see their impact on his relationships at home and at work.
Cast: The three stars of the film are undoubtedly Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, Jessie Buckley as his wife Sheila, and, Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky. While all three are excellent in their roles, Ninidze is outstanding as the experienced Russian spy. His superb portrayal of the dangers in turning against his homeland – his expression of joy in the West and increasing terror as the Soviet leadership moves inexorably toward nuclear war, is nothing short of brilliant. Angus Wright does a good job supporting the action as MI6’s Dickie Franks. But Rachel Brosnahan (who was terrific in the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) struggles to gain traction, and is increasingly irritating as the American CIA agent Emily Donovan.
Filming and setting: The cinematography is evocative in The Courier. There is incredible attention to detail as we get to see 1960s life in London and Moscow. It is a wonderful period drama.
Personal Comments: The stakes are high for Wynne and even more so for Penkovsky in this film and the sense of danger is palpable, particularly given we know that the film is based on the experiences of real people. Often when I review films based on real life events, I am critical of the way in which film-makers fabricate and frequently undermine real life experiences to make a film more dramatic and engaging for contemporary viewers. This film is a bit different. By all accounts Wynne, in real life, was an unreliable narrator. Following his return to the West he wrote a number of books about his exploits that were clearly untrue – and often flamboyantly so (for an interesting summary of Wynne’s writings see https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-behind-courier-180977265/). So in this instance, Dominic Cooke and Tom O’Connor have had to try and steer a viable path between what is known about the Cold War era, what has been written about the particular events, and in the absence of any definitive record, what might be a realistic story about a spy and a courier whose lives have been shaped by their experiences. On balance, I think they do this pretty well.