Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Nindze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a cracking bit of spy drama.
After turning the first consummation of a marriage into a twisted bundle of nerve endings with On Chesil Beach, Dominic Cooke deciding to take a stab at Cold War-era espionage seems like a no-brainer. He brought out the raw intensity of a seemingly-mundane coupling, so he should do just as well with an on-screen pair who stand between humanity and mutually assured destruction. And while he builds on the nervous oeuvre that he’s established for himself since transitioning from theatre to the big screen, Cooke also manages to one-up his own pedigree and deliver a cracking bit of spy drama.
It would’ve been easy to dismiss during the 2010s, when it seemed like Benedict Cumberbatch was seemingly cast in everything, but when given the right material, the thesp can act his arse off. And in the role of the titular courier, Greville Wynne, a salesman turned intelligence smuggler, he delivers a knock-out as the increasingly nerve-wracked layman with a mighty weight on his shoulders. From the affable and surprisingly light-hearted beginnings to the darkened, Machinist-esque finale, he stays permanently in-tune with the emotional wavelengths around him, and he’s far from alone in that.
The original title for this film was ‘Ironbark’, referring to the codename given to Russian agent Oleg Penkovsky, Greville’s main contact. And after watching Merab Ninidze’s (McMafia) performance in the role, it’s easy to see why they were considering making him the title character; work of this calibre deserves that kind of recognition. There’s also Jessie Buckley continuing her rising trajectory as Greville’s wife, and Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright as representatives of the U.S. and Britain respectively, who work as Greville’s handlers throughout, all three holding up astonishingly well next to the central performances.
The supporting players are indeed central to this entire production but, even more so than the creeping fear of nuclear war or the paranoia-laced trappings of spy work, or even the stress of a layman getting involved in the machinations of both, it’s the connection between Greville and Oleg that ends up holding everything together. Their friendship strengthens alongside the tension of the plot surrounding them, creating a properly humanistic anchor that makes every event, both warm and bone-chilling, hit like a hammer to the heart. Their chemistry holds up the crux of why this real-life event was such a necessity: both sides of the Iron Curtain had as much to lose as each other, and on a personal level as much as a national one.
Ultimately, The Courier is a humanistic spy story where the genre is tempered by pervasive levels of honest emotionality, making sure that the beating hearts of all involved never leave the frame. Benedict Cumberbatch hasn’t been this terrific in years, and if there’s any justice left in the world, Merab Ninidze will be seeing more feature work based on his efforts here alone. Together, they make a bromance for the ages, and one that is well-worth checking out.