Review: Benedict Cumberbatch compels as businessman who becomes Cold War spy in ‘The Courier’

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a British businessman recruited to spy in 1960s Moscow in “The Courier.” Photo: FilmNation Entertainment

We first meet Benedict Cumberbatch in the still-drab London of 1960. He plays a businessman, breezily entertaining some clients at lunch, looking for all the world like he’s having the time of his life. Then we cut to the end of the lunch, as the men drive away, and a look crosses his face. It’s a look that says, “Well, that ordeal is over.”

The salesman doesn’t know it, but he is developing skills that will become not only useful to him, but essential to his survival. This ability to think one way and act another will be needed, because soon he will be a spy working in the Soviet Union at the behest of British and American intelligence.

“The Courier,” in Bay Area theaters on Friday, March 19, tells the largely fact-based story of Greville Wynne, a mid-level British businessman with contacts in Eastern Europe. When a Soviet official sends out a message that he wants to communicate with the West, a CIA agent (Rachel Brosnahan) gets the idea to send an amateur — in this case someone who might actually have a plausible reason to travel to Moscow. And so Wynne is recruited.

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) gets spy instructions from Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan. Photo: Liam Daniel / FilmNation Entertainment

“The Courier” is set in the 20th century, obviously, but it also has the feel of a 20th century movie, in that it’s a suspense thriller in the classic style. It reminds us of the dread associated with the Cold War, as well as the mystery surrounding the Soviet Union of that era, presented here as a frightening place where citizens reported on citizens and everyone cultivated an impenetrable stone face.

Tom O’Connor’s script hits all the right notes, and Dominic Cooke’s direction brings out unspoken subtleties of the characters and their interactions. There are little touches, such as the relationship between the young American CIA agent and the middle-aged MI6 chief (Angus Young) — the way he seems to be in charge, but she is; the way he seems to be hard, but she’s harder.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a scene with Rachel Brosnahan, portraying a CIA agent in “The Courier.” Photo: Liam Daniel / FilmNation Entertainment

Cooke also gets strong work from Cumberbatch, whose performance suggests a man who’s not tightly wrapped to begin with; one who’s hanging on by his fingernails every moment he is in Moscow. Cumberbatch is nicely paired with Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky, the would-be defecting Soviet official. Wynne is about 40 years old, and Penkovsky seems 10 times older in spirit, though he’s about the same age. The two men come to appreciate each other’s courage and their shared aloneness.

Merab Ninidze (left) plays a would-be defecting Soviet official, in a scene with Benedict Cumberbatch. Photo: Liam Daniel / FilmNation Entertainment

“The Courier” takes place at a stressful juncture in the Cold War. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe at the United Nations and insisting that he was going to bury the Western democracies, and what Penkovsky was hearing out of Khrushchev in private meetings was even more frightening. Penkovsky was alarmed enough to risk his life to warn the United States as to what might be coming. The movie suggests, without quite explaining in detail, that Penkovsky’s warnings were key to a successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As the pressures on Wynne increase, and the missions become more dangerous, the spectacle of this average man trying to stay safe becomes riveting. It’s also instructive. “The Courier” reminds us that most people who become part of history really don’t want to be. Instead, they just want to escape history and return to gloriously unremarkable daily life.

M“The Courier”: Suspense thriller. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan and Merab Ninidze. Directed by Dominic Cooke. (PG-13. 111 minutes.) In select theaters starting Friday, March 19.



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