The Courier

Wynne with Dickie Franks and Emily Donovan

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.

Mr and Mrs Wynne entertain the Russians
Mr and Mrs Wynne entertain the Russians

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?

The Courier – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Mauritanian

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster

The man at the centre of The Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person. Wikipedia spells his last name Salahi but its facts otherwise agree pretty closely with Kevin Macdonald’s film – picked up in Mauritania, extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for years, suspected of being Al Qaeda’s chief recruiter.

Was he? Macdonald earned his stripes making documentaries and went big time with Touching the Void. Since then he’s had his biggest successes with films cleaving close to the factual (The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda tyrant Idi Amin), while the more overtly fictional The Eagle (Roman legions in Scotland) and Black Sea (submarine jeopardy) caused less overall excitement. The Mauritanian wants to have its cake and eat it – to be factually true yet dramatically intense – and does it by playing peekaboo with Slahi’s guilt or innocence.

Early on, Macdonald shows us Slahi deleting all the contacts on his phone. A later revelation – that he’d taken a call from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone – also seems to point the finger. This last in particular could easily have been cleared up in a flashback (there are plenty), but Macdonald leaves things vague. Suspicions are allowed to grow.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Slahi in Gitmo being questioned about his past activities. The prosecution got in to ensure he goes to death row is headed by buttoned-down establishemnt guy Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of whose friends was flying one of the planes that powered into the Twin Towers. Ranged against him is doughty unsmiling defender Nancy Hollander, an activist lawyer professional to her cuticles assisted by slightly gosh-wow rookie Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).

Prosecutor Stuart Couch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch

Hollander’s “defence” of Slahi isn’t a defence of him at all but of a principle. It’s essentially a call to the US government to put up or shut up – charge Slahi or let him go – using the most basic legal principle of all, Habeas Corpus.

From here there’s a good slab of very familiar material – Hollander petitioning the authorities for its evidence, the authorities responding either with pages of material so redacted as to be useless, or attempting to swamp the defence with boxes of papers which can only be read by her and Duncan and only in this one secure room, an impossible task.

Crouch, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow. And while Hollander’s takes her away from abstract involvment in the case into a more personal interest, Crouch’s takes him in the opposite direction – from hot emotion to a much cooler appraisal of what’s going on at a legal level. The liberal Hollander’s story is the more obviously glorious and crusading, but Crouch’s story is also important and interesting and he is in many respects the hero of this tale, especially after he visits Gitmo to find out first hand what goes on there.

Crouch, Hollander, Duncan – these briskly written characters are tight, bright people with no time for messing around. Cumberbatch (voice slung slow), Foster and Woodley respond by playing them as written, crisply. Their interactions together are fascinating to watch. Macdonald has clearly picked up a thing or two from the walkie-talkie-ness of Aaron Sorkin’s dramas (from A Few Good Men to The Social Network).

Slahi, on the other hand, in the hands of Tahar Rahim, is expansive, warm, engaging, personable, a presence whose charm, and Rahim’s skills, are used to keep the glimmer of a suspicion alive. “The Forest Gump of Al Qaeda” as one interogator puts it? Still a possibility.

If you know Slahi’s story then some of Macdonald’s dramatic crescendoes just won’t work – I didn’t, so they did. More generally, The Mauritanian tells a story that’s no surprise – man arrested on no charge, held for years, confession extracted by water-boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep-deprivation, heavy metal, stress-positions and the full Rumsfeld-sanctioned bag of tricks.

Out of 749 detentions at Guantanamo Bay there have been only seven convictions. While putting a human face on one of those stories, the familiarity of what happens to Slahi, who remains opaque to the end, robs this politically important film of some of its dramatic power.

The Mauritanian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Starter for 10

Alice Eve, James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall in Starter for 10



Write what you know, they say, and David Nicholls certainly does that here. An adaptation of his 2003 best-seller about a 1980s working class kid going to university, written by a 1980s working class kid who went to university, this comedy is full of period flavour and has the tang of authentic experience. Nicholls and director Tom Vaughan haven’t left success to chance, however, they’ve pumped all this bittersweet detail into the most durable of genre plots – the romantic comedy – with James McAvoy playing the Nicholls avatar, Brian Jackson, a fresher at the high-end Bristol university (Nicholls’s own alma mater) who is slightly out of his social class and so signs up to join the University Challenge quiz team. Where he meets leggy blonde head-turning posh tease Alice (Alice Eve), seemingly just minutes after having met the bright, socially committed Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who is more in his league.

The drama then consists of watching young Brian throw himself to little avail against Alice’s ramparts while under his nose, waiting if only he knew it… you’re ahead of me. But this really is a case of “never mind the plot, feel the detail” with Nicholls’s screenplay taking time to paint the sense of freedom that leaving home brings, but also the gulf it opens up between the old life and the new.

This is where McAvoy comes in, the go-to guy for a certain sort of well-brought-up British male (Scottish accent optional), he is to the aspiring working class and lower middles what Danny Dyer is to the contentedly working class, a seemingly effortless charmer, playing a series of smart, likeable, cocky but vulnerable characters people identify with. So we are on Brian’s side when he goes home to find there’s a distance between him and his lone-parent mother (Catherine Tate) who made sacrifices so he’d get on, and that his down-to-earth best mate at home (Dominic Cooper) now seems, in comparison to his new university friends, a bit gauche. And we’re on Brian’s side too when he encounters the socially superior lah-di-dah types you meet in the groves of academe (Benedict Cumberbatch’s quiz team captain). Nicholls and Vaughan also score well on painting a picture of the first weeks at university, as uprooted teenagers work out which new group they fit into – the pseuds, the dudes, dressers up, the lumpen others, and so on.

And it’s the 1980s, so The Cure feature heavily on the zeitgeisty soundtrack – as anyone who’s read Nicholls’s One Day will know, music is key to his capture of period – and the patron saints of 1980s awkwardness seem never more appropriate than here.

Does it all end happily? Well that would be giving away too much of the plot, but as readers of One Day will also know, Nicholls is as much about exploiting genre as polishing it, so don’t get too cosy with what looks at first glance like a British version of a John Hughes underdog romance. As for the title, that’s one of the catchphrases of the TV show University Challenge – based on the US show College Bowl – in which opposing teams test their status-defining cultural knowledge, while audiences at home watch the interplay between the social classes. Which is kind of what the film does too.



Starter for Ten – Watch it now at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2006