THE COURIER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Dominic Cooke

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Meran Nidinze, Jessie Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright, Keir Hills.

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In the early 1960s Russian premier Nikita Kruschchev was rattling his nuclear sabre and making threats directed towards America. Oleg Penkovsky (played by Russian actor Meran Nidinze) was a former war hero and a high-ranking military intelligence officer who was worried by Kruschchev’s intemperate behaviour. He approached a couple of American tourists in Moscow and urged them to pass on some information to the American embassy. The CIA was hamstrung in its operations in Moscow after another spy operation was exposed, and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) approached Britain’s MI6 for assistance. They decided that the best approach was to use an innocent businessman to establish contact with Penkovsky under the guise of negotiations to open up marketing opportunities for Russian companies.

Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) who was approached by the spy organisations. Wynne had previously travelled to the Eastern bloc on business trips so it was thought that his trips to Moscow would not arouse too much suspicion. It also helped that Wynne was out of shape and too fond of a drink, and would be the “last person” that the CIA would send on a vital mission behind the Iron Curtain.

Wynne and Penkovsky met regularly on trips to Moscow, and Penkovsky even attended a delegation in England, and a strong bond of friendship developed between the two men. In Moscow Wynne attends the ballet with Penkovsky and when the Russian delegation visits London he treats them to a visit to the decadent West End.

Eventually Penkovsky managed to smuggle some 5000 documents out of Russia, most of which dealt with the Russian nuclear program. These documents were also vital in helping to defuse the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But eventually both men were caught – Penkovsky beaten and tortured and executed while Wynne spent a year in a harsh Russian prison while being interrogated and beaten. These scenes bring a gritty edge to the material and are often tough to watch.

This is an old-fashioned tale of Cold War intrigue, and is based on a true story. Its slow burn style is more John Le Carre than James Bond. The film has been written by Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke, who take some liberties with the story for dramatic effect. This is only the second feature for Cooke (On Chesil Beach) who hails from a background in theatre, but his deliberate pacing is effective and gradually builds the suspense.

The performances from Cumberbatch and Nidinze further enrich the drama. Cumberbatch delivers one of the best performances of his career as he portrays Wynne’s initial uncertainty and reluctance, but he grows in confidence as the mission continues. He is a likeable chap with a great sense of humour and an affable nature. But it also seems as though Cumberbatch lost a lot of weight to play a horribly gaunt looking Wynne after his year in prison. Nidinze brings a hint of dignity to his performance as Penkovsky, portraying him as man who believed in doing what he thought was right in trying to ensure peace between the two countries and drawing the world back from the brink of nuclear war. Jessie Buckley is also good as Sheila, Wynne’s wife who grows tired of the secrecy until the full import of his actions is revealed. Brosnahan also has a strong presence as Wynne’s CIA contact, but she brings a mix of toughness and concern to her performance.

The film was shot on location in Prague and its bleak, blocky institutionally drab architecture is a perfect substitute for Moscow and the period details reeks of authenticity. Cooke captures the grey world of espionage, the secrecy and paranoia of Russia and its bureaucratic mindset and its treatment of spies and dissidents. The film has been shot in a drab muted colour palette by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt which adds to its oppressive feel. 

★★★☆

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