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?




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







I’m Your Woman

Jean with new baby

 

I’m Your Woman starts with a series of wham-bam events that prompt the question: “what is that all about?”

A man arrives home and gives his wife a baby she’s clearly never seen before in a “there you are, get on with it” kind of way.

In the next scene, a gang of men all arrive at the house that Eddie (Bill Heck) shares with Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) + new unexplained baby. Who are they?

Eddie suddenly goes missing. Why?

A guy called Cal (Arinzé Kene) turns up, gives Jean a big bag of money and spirits her (+ new unexplained baby) off to a hideout.

We have no idea what’s going on and neither the screenplay nor direction nor the look on Jean’s face are giving us any clues. However, director Julia Hart is laying on the pregnant silences, and the spare soundtrack (by ASKA) is clanking away guiltily here and there, suggesting there is something rattling in Jean’s closet. Jean – the way she accepts the baby, her husband’s disappearance, Cal, the money, the relocation, all with barely a murmur – is the biggest unanswered question of all.

Further strange, unsettling, even murderous events start happening around Jean and she seems to be at the mercy of them all. The woman as passive agent. Cal turns up again and evacuates Jean from what was meant to be a new life in a quiet neighbourhood but which all went bloodily bad. She ends up rehomed in a cabin in the woods. Then Cal’s wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake), father (Frankie Faison) and son (Da’mauri Parks) turn up and things start to unravel… and explain themselves at the same time.

Jean cannot cook, not even a fried egg, she cannot have children and now her husband’s run off. She looks like a depressed woman and behaves like she’s carrying a burden of failure.

As it becomes clearer that Jean’s Eddie was in fact a very bad man, I’m Your Woman’s dynamics start to shift from mystery thriller to chase thriller, and along the way Jean stops being Your Woman (ie a gangster’s moll) and becomes Her Own Woman, albeit one who’s running for her life.

Though she’s barely paused for breath since she started working in 2009, Brosnahan is probably best known for being the star of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, a series set in a kind of Mad Men 1960s. We’re in the 1970s in I’m Your Woman, Brosnahan’s centre-parted lank hair and denim flares a match for the stoner lassitude that characterised the era. Neither director Hart nor Brosnahan seems quite as obsessive about capturing the era as Maisel, but it’s not necessary. This isn’t really about the 1970s, it’s about a woman finding her way.

 

An underground bar
A new world awaits

 

Men don’t fare that well, coming across for the most part as seedy, stupid and impulsive whenever we catch a proper glimpse of them, which is rare. But I’m Your Woman is at its best while its mysteries are still mysteries, its characters in the shade, while we’re leaning in to try and find out what’s going on, rather than sitting back to see how things are going to turn out. The unanswered is the source of this unusual film’s power.

How Jean escapes from her husband’s shadow and from the men who are following her – and whether she does – is the stuff of spoilers. What can be said without ruining things too much is that it’s a rousing, bloody and satisfying finale and compensates a touch for the sense of things having wound down, paradoxically, as obscurity has given way to action.

Jean’s journey is from being an extra in someone else’s play to being the star in her own. From judging herself as a failed woman to being the judge of other, mostly useless, men.

And as Jean establishes herself as a person in her own right, discovers her own code to live by, this film ends, in a way that’s ever so faintly reminiscent of a movie from the early 1970s, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which also didn’t so much end as just grind. to. a. halt.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021