The Courier  Review: Typical Spy Fare
Dominic Cooke’s The Courier is another biopic that adopts the “been there, done that” structure, as it chronicles the true story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British salesman who gets recruited by the MI6 to become a courier for Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet Military Intelligence colonel who has been providing information to British intelligence related to nuclear missiles being sent to Cuba. If you know the story, Penkovsky is the man who stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis with the aid of Wynne, and the film admirably portrays the story of how that happened, admittedly a little bit too rushed and formulaic, but still admirable, nonetheless.
Without Benedict Cumberbatch’s central performance as Greville Wynne, the film is a rather facile chronicle, borrowing the aesthetics of a James Bond production and infusing it with Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, an infinitely superior movie in every way. Cumberbatch magnifies the screen in a role that progressively twists his “normal” life as the film goes along, which creates a rift in his marriage with his wife (Jessie Buckley), who suspects he is having an affair with him constantly going to Moscow without legitimate explanation. He and Buckley have palpable chemistry together and make every [small] scene they’re in work. The Courier is essentially an actor’s film, with the performances being the one strong suit that ties the entire story together. I particularly enjoyed seeing Rachel Brosnahan as a CIA spy who works with the British and Greville to establish contact with Penkovsky. Brosnahan is one of the best up-and-coming actresses working today and makes sure every amount of screen time she receives in this film isn’t wasted to deliver a rather memorable performance.
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Through its acting, The Courier can establish brilliant tension, culminating in an exciting sequence in which Greville believes Penkovsky needs to be extradited. It goes terribly wrong, of course, but its excitement is elevated through its wonderful acting and music from Abel Korzeniowski, which perfectly complement what’s presented on-screen. For most of the runtime, the music feels terribly out-of-place, with a silly Henry Mancini-esque tone (reminiscent of his work in The Pink Panther films), even though the film’s subject matter is grave. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not something to be taken (or treated) lightly, but Korzeniowski’s music doesn’t feel right for the movie’s setting and its story. The only time it works is during the climactic chase sequences, where KGB officers try to hunt down everyone involved in the mission to extradite Pankovsky because the score feels right for the moment: it amplifies the tension and aids in its construction (and culmination, when Greville gets arrested and punched in the stomach).
While The Courier presents the story in a rather predictable manner, following every trope of the “traditional spy film,” with stark call-backs from James Bond films of the past, it radically shifts in tone for its epilogue once Greville becomes imprisoned by Soviet military officials, who are trying to paint him as a traitor who aided Pankovsky in supplying information to the British government. It doesn’t necessarily work—as the jarring shift in tone feels like it’s taken from another film, highly (quasi) reminiscent of the non-ending from Kathryn Bigelow’s submarine flick K19: The Widowmaker, which also randomly shifted in tone to add extra dramatic flair but didn’t feel natural.
The same can be said for The Courier’s ending: it just doesn’t feel dramatically earned. Yes, this is what happened: Wynne was imprisoned for two years in Russia, with Pankovsky being executed for high treason, but, in the case of the film, it feels tonally and thematically out of place with what it’s trying to portray. It’s a weird thing to say, particularly when we’re talking about a film based on a true story that tries to chronicle what happened as accurately as possible. Though, filmmakers can always take liberties with what should be represented on-screen and what should be told off-screen. There could’ve been a better way to represent the epilogue of the story and, because of this, The Courier quickly loses the momentum it’s been building since its opening scene.
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That’s not saying that The Courier is a bad film. It’s not bad, just terribly uninspired. If it weren’t for Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, et al., my interest would’ve dwindled a long time ago. Borrowing from every spy film in the book to create a predictable, formulaic chronicle of one of the most heroic moments in British history that single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from ever happening deserves a better script, better aesthetics, and a better direction to make it as gripping and memorable as possible, but alas. Still, there are worse films out there, and if you want to see another legendary performance from Benedict Cumberbatch again, you wouldn’t want to miss out on this one.
The Courier Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes