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The Courier

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Courier
Photograph: Liam Daniel, courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Benedict Cumberbatch takes up spying in an old-school espionage thriller that’ll leave you clammy-palmed

We’re so used to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch making cunning deductions (Sherlock, The Imitation Game), inventing stuff (The Current War), or just casually altering the very fabric of time (Doctor Strange), it’s instantly refreshing to see him playing someone wildly out of their depth for once. In this sweat-beaded real-life spy thriller, he is not the smartest person in the room – even in his own home.

That man is accidental Cold warrior Greville Wynne, an entrepreneur-turned-MI6 courier who smuggled top-secret Soviet intel out of Moscow in the early ‘60s. The real Wynne served as conduit between the CIA and MI6 and their top mole inside the KGB, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) – codenamed ‘Ironbark – and brought key information about Soviet plans to put nukes in Cuba.

Cumberbatch plays him as a guileless type with a taste for adventure, a strong sense of duty and just a bit of the moustachoed Terry-Thomas about him. He’s an ingenue with business connections in Moscow, and a wife (Jessie Buckley) and child back home. Who better, explains his American handler (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan), to make contact with Penkovsky? No one will suspect him.

The palm-moistening thrills come in watching this classic Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ frantically trying to learn enough spycraft to save his own bacon. Cumberbatch believably charts Wynne’s inexpert fumblings in dark alleys, dead drops and nerve-shredding checkpoints, while the excellent Ninidze brings edge and a sense of the steepling stakes they’re both playing for. One false move means the gulag – or worse.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) and screenwriter Tom O’Connor share a keen ear for both awkward marital exchanges and covert meetings – each equally laden with subtext and hidden meanings. The Courier is great on sketching out how mid-life boredom could make this impromptu mission seem thrilling, while leaving Wynne totally unprepared for it to go wrong.

Buckley gets a pretty thankless role as the suspicious wife, although she gets much more change out of the film’s second half, which elevates her into its conscience as Wynne suffers the hefty consequences of his deeds.

Don’t expect anything on the sames scale as Cumberbatch’s last spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, because this is a film of claustrophobic interiors and snatched exchanges that eventually tapers down into a man’s quest for survival. If you’re on the hunt for an old-fashioned spy flick, through, The Courier has just enough le Carré-ish thrills to get by.

In UK cinemas Aug 13.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Dominic Cooke
  • Screenwriter:Tom O'Connor
  • Cast:
    • Benedict Cumberbatch
    • Merab Ninidze
    • Rachel Brosnahan
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