THE COURIER movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

THE COURIER movie poster | ©2021 Lionsgate

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Zeljko Ivanek, Kirill Pirogov, Anton Lesser, Maria Mironova, Vladimir Chuprikov
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Director: Dominic Cooke
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: March 19, 2021

 THE COURIER begins with the onscreen statement, “This film is based on true events.” This is accurate. Whether those events happened the way they’re depicted here or not, THE COURIER is a cracking good period spy thriller.

By 1960, both the United States and Soviet Union had enough weapons to wipe out humanity (and presumably most other organic life on the planet). Many people are afraid the world is about to end.

The saber-rattling on both sides isn’t helping matters. We hear Soviet leader Nikolai Khrushchev making a belligerent speech that alarms Soviet Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) so much that he feels he must personally do something.

When Penkovsky’s missives reach the CIA, agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is sent to London to meet with her counterparts at MI-6. Donovan and MI-6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) agree that the KGB would likely sniff out a real spy making contact with Penkovsky. They need to find a go-between that the Russians would never suspect.

The solution: persuade English businessman Grenville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to act as the courier for written messages between Penkovsky and the U.S./U.K. Wynne sells factory parts to factories, and Penkovsky is the head of the Soviet trade delegation. These are men who would interact in the normal course of business, so It’s an ideal set-up – or it would be, if Wynne wasn’t so hesitant.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Wynne finally agrees to cooperate. He forms a gentle friendship with Penkovsky, a respected military figure whose desire is genuinely to protect his own country from the threat of nuclear war.

At first, all goes well. As Penkovsky assures Wynne, the KGB believe the Englishman is being bribed to sell to the Soviets: in their view, all Westerners are greedy capitalists, ready to do anything for money.

Then things take a turn.

Look up the real Wynne and the real Penkovsky online, and it’s clear that the U.S., Britain, Russia and probably every other country on Earth has reason to be grateful to them. When the scope of their activities sinks in, it’s in fact surprising the story is not more widely known.

However, this would all be irrelevant to THE COURIER if director Dominic Cooke and writer Tom O’Connor were not so deft and propulsive in their approach. Cooke tells a familiar type of narrative in unconventional ways. A scene where we might expect lots of close-ups is instead played in a wide shot, letting the characters’ body language and proximity inform the emotion.

Cumberbatch is excellent as Wynne, hearty, then polite, then anxious, then finally stripped down to his essence. Ninidze is thoroughly convincing. Brosnahan manages to combine a period-perfect look and a sense of timeless competence as the determined Donovan, and Jessie Buckley is affecting as Wynne’s understandably bewildered wife.

The interiors all convey ‘60s in every way. One very minor gripe about the exteriors is that 1960s-era London and 1960s-era Moscow (the latter sequences were shot in the Czech Republic) often resemble each other so much here that we sometimes have to figure out where we are.

This aside, THE COURIER compels our attention and our sympathy throughout, and earns our respect by its conclusion.

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