A familiar and enjoyable spy movie of the old school, The Courier went by the name Ironbark on its first screenings. The new title suits it better.
Why that is, and whether the film should be so familiar and enjoyable is the question. It’s the true story of a middle-class amateur, Greville Wynne, deployed on a no-need-to-know basis by MI6 and the CIA to ferry messages from a Soviet agent back to the West at the height of the Cold War. Together, so the story goes, Wynne and agent Oleg Penkovsky saved the world from destruction as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to unleash World War III.
“I’m just a salesman,” says Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) early on. And he is. A golf-playing, whisky-swilling, old-school-tie sort of chap with an easy manner who is recruited by a tag team of MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and the CIA’s Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). They’re working in tandem because the CIA are a bit “thin on the ground” in Moscow after the recent ructions caused by the case of exposed agent Pyotr Popov.
This amateur James Bond has a dutiful wife and child at home. His business dealings and existing contacts in the Eastern Bloc give him the ideal cover to expand into the USSR, where disgruntled GRU member Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is waiting to slip him microfilms to be taken back to London.
There’s been a lot of this sort of thing of late – microfilm, dead letter drops, chalk marks left on street furniture, meetings in public places, the spycraft staples – since the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie in 2011 breathed new life into an old dog. Steven Spielberg gave us Bridge of Spies in 2015. Berlin Station gave us a lot more of the same over three TV seasons (2016-2019), as had The Americans (six seasons 2013-18), Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied, not to mention comedy versions of the same thing – Spy (Melissa McCarthy), American Ultra (Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg), Keeping Up with the Joneses (Zach Galifianakis and Gal Gadot) and so on.
The Courier is happy to work the Le Carré seam. It’s sumptuously shot, has a lush Russia-inflected score and its action takes place in familiar spy surrounding – restaurants, concert halls and hotels. At one point I was convinced we got a glimpse of the road Pierce Brosnan drove a tank down in Goldeneye. I could be wrong… either way, it’s that sort of film.
It’s happy in its skin, and never takes a step that isn’t plausible. Though the jeopardy does increase, it does so gradually. Baby steps.
Benedict Cumberbatch is fun to watch as he shifts from the diffident silly-arse Brit to someone who is more sure of himself. Wynne starts doing press-ups. His love-making with his wife becomes more vigorous – “He’s become so energetic in bed,” she complains to a friend. “Poor you,” the friend commiserates. In tiny, subtle ways Cumberbatch suggests that the “amateur” is beginning to see himself as something more. Dr No, the first Bond movie, was released in October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October 1962.
Later, when the shit comes down, Cumberbatch is required to enter Christian Bale territory – weight loss and anguish – and he’s good at that too.
Oddly, considering the film was originally called Ironbark after the codename of its Russian protagonist, the character of Penkovsky doesn’t get much of a shout. But the rename makes sense. This is more about the courier than the supplier.
So not an awful lot for Merab Ninidze to do as Penkovsky, apart from look nervous. Not much either for the ever-excellent Jessie Buckley as Sheila Wynne, her accent set to etch diamonds, as is Cumberbatch’s (and you thought he was posh already!)
For all the many excellences, The Courier also wants us to feel dread – the film’s last 40 minutes make that clear. These two men between them stopped the world from ending, or something, it seems. Is that true? We’re never really given access to the detail behind that assertion, as if everyone at the production end is worried that burdening an audience with too many facts would leave them out in the cold. Instead we’re handed the comfort blanket of genre. It’s fine, it’s cosy, but isn’t The Courier trying to be something more?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021