Benedict Cumberbatch elevates solid spy thriller The Courier with an eye-catching lead performance

The Courier: Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan and Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne
Damon Smith

THE COURIER (12A, 112 mins) Thriller/War/Romance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Jessie Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright, Vladimir Chuprikov, Keir Hills. Director: Dominic Cooke.

Released: August 13

REAL-life espionage at the height of the Cold War provides a solid dramatic framework for director Dominic Cooke's old-fashioned spy caper.

Devoid of the gadgets and tense action sequences that have distinguished the covert operations of James Bond and Jason Bourne, The Courier concentrates on the unlikely friendship between a British businessman and a high-ranking Soviet official, which ultimately defused tensions between President John F Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Cooke incorporates archive news footage from the era, including Kennedy's 1961 address before the United Nations General Assembly ("Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles…"), to emphasise the suffocating fear of political stalemate and impending Armageddon.

Tom O'Connor's slow-paced script does not deviate from a well-trodden path but Benedict Cumberbatch elevates solid material with an eye-catching lead performance as the stiff upper-lipped husband and father, who puts his life on the line to serve his country.

He sparks winning screen chemistry with co-star Merab Ninidze as the mole in the Soviet ranks, who rationalises the betrayal of his country as a selfless act for his unsuspecting wife and child.

"Sometimes lies are a gift, an act of love," he sermonises.

A psychologically and physically gruelling final act plays to Cumberbatch's strengths but overstays its welcome.

In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) stokes the war of words with the US and threatens to push the button on nuclear warfare between the superpowers. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze), who leads the State Committee for Scientific Research, becomes increasingly concerned about the bullish rhetoric and secretly makes contact with the US embassy in Moscow.

CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 counterpart Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) concoct a plan to send an ordinary salesman to the Soviet Union to make contact with Penkovsky and act as a courier for top-secret intelligence.

They hand-pick Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) for the assignment, who is initially clueless about the potential repercussions for his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and young son Andrew (Keir Hills).

"If this mission were dangerous, you really are the last person we would send," Franks assures Greville.

The salesman nervously heads to Moscow and quickly bonds with Penkovsky, who seeks a brighter future for his wife and daughter.

"Use my information wisely, not as a weapon but as a tool to make peace," the Soviet counsels Donovan and Franks.

The Courier draws comparisons to Steven Spielberg's superior Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies, evoking a similar era of paranoia and suspicion when East and West traded captured operatives.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt opts for a dark palette to reflect the political discord.

Protracted torture scenes test our patience but Cooke atones with an emotionally wrought final exchange between Cumberbatch and Ninidze that raises the Iron Curtain an inch or two.


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