With swarms of Cold War era films at one’s disposal, it has become notably more difficult to find a spy film riveting enough to truly capture the audience’s full attention — even while touting the phrase “based on real events.” “The Courier” is based on the true story of unassuming British businessman-turned-hero Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who ferried Soviet secrets from Moscow to London and follows the textbook spy film structure to the tee. But what sets the film apart from other unsuccessful spy thrillers is the surprising quirks peppered in that elevate it beyond the status of yet another forgettable historical drama.
While “The Courier” falls short of having the same allure and sophistication as the likes of Cumberbatch’s earlier film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or “Bridge of Spies,” it boasts its fair share of suspense, action and well-timed humor. At the beginning of the film, Wynne is approached by MI6 operative Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and is tasked with bringing in secrets from Soviet general Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). As expected, Wynne goes through all the defense mechanisms and stages of reluctance needed to carry out such a dangerous task, but ultimately comes out as the man of the hour. Though Wynne was eventually captured by the KGB and later exchanged for a Soviet spy, his efforts helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Director Dominic Cooke gives “The Courier” the extra oomph it needs to resonate with viewers, which centers around the juxtaposition of Wynne’s status as a spy and his desire to do a service to the world. Throughout the film, there is a subtle internal conflict within Wynne that Cumberbatch exudes through sly, sarcastic wit and simple relatability. Even if the real Wynne’s behavior is glossed over by Hollywood, the shared laughs, fears and awkward moments feel all too real. In fact, there’s a high level of satisfaction that viewers, at most times, know more than any given character in the film does. However, the fear of Wynne being caught lingers even in the most lighthearted of moments, carefully crafted through a sinister moment of the score or a lull that’s just the slightest bit too long.
While the tempo doesn’t quite pick up until the second half of the movie, the first half is sustained by pockets of humor generated by Cumberbatch’s amusing mannerisms as an ordinary man. Wynne’s banter with his wife and a short montage of him partying with various Soviet men make the series of grave events to come that much more powerful and completely unexpected. The film excellently positions moments in which viewers root for Wynne right before all of his untimely fate, employing bursts of suspense before entirely descending into despair.
From the harrowing descriptions of nuclear war that Wynne hears affecting his family to his gut-wrenching encounters with the KGB, Cumberbatch flawlessly executes the flurry of emotions swirling around Wynne and his life-changing decisions. Acting with a much-needed precision and affinity for comic relief — whether fully intended or not — Cumberbatch easily embodies Wynne to his utmost potential, though, it could just be that the actor has a talent for portraying slightly snarky Britishers. Cumberbatch must not only be commended for his emotional transformation, but the physical one. For the part, he has become hauntingly gaunt, yet he always possesses Wynne’s strength, even in his darkest moments.
Previously-done but nonetheless interesting, “The Courier” makes for a satisfying historical thriller. It’s the film’s reliance on its “true story” notion and Cumberbatch’s acting chops, however, that drive the plot forward. Though at times “The Courier” cannot shake the oftentimes heavy sugar coating that comes with a dramatization of real events, Cooke and crew somehow manage to take a series of business dealings and liven them up to the point that you’re gripping your seat, knowing what comes next, but still invested.