When you think of a spy, you probably think of James Bond. This is precisely why, counterintuitively, Bond would probably make a pretty terrible spy: he looks like one. The best spies are the unassuming, middle management types, who can slip in anywhere undetected because they are so underestimated. The Courier, then, is perhaps the most accurate representation of a Cold War-era espionage thriller and Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, its most compelling secret agent. It’s the utter definition of a dad movie, but it’s also packed with tension, nuance, and powerful supporting performances that elevate it well above just your run-of-the-mill spy drama.
Greville Wynne is the prototypical middle-aged, upper-crust English businessman. He makes his living by being generally affable and unusually talented at anticipating his clients’ needs: it’s not a trade, per se, but it requires a specialized skill set all the same. And it’s his reputation as a consummate businessman with these very abilities that unexpectedly draw the attention of MI6. A high-ranking Soviet officer, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), has given indications that he’s willing to share sensitive national security information in the hopes of averting nuclear war. But someone needs to make contact with him in Russia, and it can’t be anyone in foreign intelligence that the Kremlin would already have a file on.
Enter Wynne. His job begins with the most minor responsibilities: to be more or less exactly what he is, an opportunistic businessman looking to establish lucrative trade contracts within the Soviet Union. But as his relationship with Penkovsky grows and becomes more emotionally invested in the enterprise, he discusses hidden reserves of courage hitherto unbeknownst to him as he faces unimaginable danger.
Benedict Cumberbatch has spent the past few years committed to the Marvel machine, taking on more supporting rather than leading roles as his schedule allows. The Courier serves as a reminder of what a formidable leading man he is when given the proper vehicle, and this is his strongest performance in quite some time. It’s satisfying to watch him age into the type of role he’s particularly well-suited for: the straight-laced, middle-aged bureaucrat with hidden depths. It’s wonderful to see him as this utterly unremarkable man who finds himself invigorated by the challenges and dangers of his new work as an intelligence operative. Cumberbatch also has tremendous chemistry with his Russian counterpart, Ninidze. Over the course of The Courier, their relationship evolves from a curt working association to a much more substantial bond of respect, admiration, and friendship. In fact, their dynamic is so rich and engaging that the film actually suffers by not exploring it more.
The Courier’s biggest issue is that of pacing. The film’s most compelling parts are the moments of connection between Wynne and Penkovsky, and The Courier doesn’t devote enough time to them. It has a prolonged third act highlighting the genuine consequences of their actions, which is gripping in its own right but also feels as though it could have been truncated to expand the middle third (the actual espionage part of the espionage thriller.)
In addition to Cumberbatch and Ninidze, some strong supporting performances round out the cast. Jessie Buckley as Wynne’s wife, is delightful as always, and although her character is under-written, she wrings powerful moments of humanity from the screen time she does get. Rachel Brosnahan plays Wynne’s lead CIA handler, proving once again that she has a captivating screen presence and is an underrated performer outside the realm of comedy that she’s best known for. She especially sells one of the most emotionally resonant aspects of The Courier: the abject terror at the prospect of nuclear war. We have the benefit of hindsight; we know that no matter how heated the Cold War eventually got, it would never lead to a nuclear apocalypse. So it’s easy to forget how much that fear informed the actions of everyone involved with foreign affairs in the early 1960s.
Putting the audience in that absolutely terror-stricken mindset with the highest of stakes makes The Courier the rare Cold War drama that actually feels like it could have been made during the Cold War. It features moving performances throughout, especially from Cumberbatch and Ninidze, as two courageous historical figures who put aside their own fears because they truly believe that humanity’s future is at stake. The Courier is a slow burn thriller that, despite its lack of high-octane action sequences that you might find in other espionage films, is nonetheless packed with tension that leaves you breathless.