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THE COURIER (2021) review

March 21, 2021


written by: Tom O’Connor
produced by: Adam Ackland, Ben Browning, Ben Pugh & Rory Aitken
directed by: Dominic Cooke
rated: PG-13 (for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout)
runtime: 111 minutes
U.S. release date: March 19, 2021 (theaters)


Cold War spy thrillers can be for a target audience, but when specific elements are combined, they can have the ability to reach viewers that would otherwise overlook such films. Those specific elements would include obvious ingredients such as great performances and solid direction, but when a compelling story is based on actual events, it adds significant weight to it, asking viewers to lean in a little closer. Such is the case with “The Courier”, the latest film from director Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”) and screenwriter Tom O’Connor (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”), that examines the part an British businessman had in preventing an outbreak of nuclear war in the early 1960s.

The story begins in 1960, where we’re introduced to Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British engineer who’s busy providing for his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son, Andrew (Keir Hills, who uncannily looks like Cumberbatch), as a salesman. Greville, known for going out of his way to engage with his clientele (which may find him a bit too indulgent during happy hour), gets recruited by MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA officer Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), who see him as an unassuming choice to develop a working relationship with Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) since he has recently contacted the American Embassy with key information pertaining to Khrushchev’s plans for the nuclear arms race. Oleg has his own family to consider and hopes to prevent Russia from engaging in irreversible destruction.

The goal is for Greville to keep about his business and act as a courier, traveling to Moscow under the guise of work, while obtaining military documentation linked to the growing threat in Cuba. This lasts for years, despite Greville’s changing behavior detected by his concerned wife, but he inevitably gets in deeper than imagined. Greville and Oleg form a mutual respect for each other, yet both realize the gravity of their work together and the danger it presents for themselves and the rest of the world.



“The Courier” isn’t compelling due to any typical conventions associated with Cold War tales, but rather due to the fascinating central two characters, impressively portrayed by Cumberbatch and Ninidze. The two actors elevate the material here, offering characters who are wholly engaging and relatable. As Greville, Cumberbatch exudes an initial British dryness as he follows a business routine of wining and dining potential clients and maintaining family life. When he’s recruited, it seems ludicrous at first, but then the draw of being valued by government officials is subsided by concern for what could transpire if the Krushchev regime carries out their plans. O’Connor is wise to spend time on Oleg and his side in all of this, especially since Ninidze delivers such a nuanced performance for such a conflicted character. Oleg isn’t some “Russian bad guy”, but rather a man with a conscience, who’s struggling with becoming a traitor in his clandestine attempts at preventing World War III.

Both actors convey a wide range of understandable emotions (from paranoia to growing anxieties) as their characters eventually realize how their activity presents greater risks, resulting in a film that deals with dramatic tension and stressors, moreso than typical spy thrills. By studying these two men, especially as they learn more about each other’s lives, “The Courier” offers unexpected characterization. Both characters must contend with suspicions from all sides, Greville from his wife and Oleg from his colleagues and the KGB. It helps that the screenplay offers Buckley (who’s been excellent in everything she appears in) something more to work with than the “concerned wife”. Due to Greville’s past dalliances, she has reason to be suspicious of his actions and recent changes in his behavior when he returns from his trips to Moscow.



Where the story ends up becomes equally heartbreaking and harrowing as “The Courier” reveals what Greville and Oleg had to endure. Emily’s attempts at helping Greville fails and the poor guy undergoes a brutal and disturbing experience with the Russians, elevating the drama and equal concern for characters on both sides of the nuclear missile threat. The “based on true events’ weight of the story really kicks into full gear in its third act, with Cooke delving into psychological trauma and exhaustion.

Audiences may have grown accustomed to Cumberbatch’s presence in movies, with the actor regularly offering exemplary work, but his work here serves as a reminder that he shouldn’t be taken for granted. He communicates the right amount of subtle emotions and a growing sense of mounting pressure. This goes for Ninidze too, who’s primarily known for his great work in “Nowhere in Africa” and “Bridge of Spies” and winds up being quite a standout here. It’s a substantial and crucial role embodied by an formidable actor.

“The Courier” has notable production design by Suzie Davies, who’s worked with directors such as Mike Leigh and Niki Caro, as well as Cooke’s last film, “On Chesil Beach”. Her work here, along with costumer designer Keith Madden, supports the overall look and feel of the period, allowing the actors to effortlessly lose themselves in the story’s era. Also of note is the score from Abel Korzeniowski (“Penny Dreadful”), who provides beautiful orchestration and a recognizable melodic theme running throughout the film. These elements, along with at least two strong performances, result in “The Courier” becoming a much more engrossing viewing experience than it would appear to be from the outside.






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