★★★★ - STUFF
- Benedict Cumberbatch, Jessie Buckley shine in Cold War thriller -
“You drink too much, you’re not in great shape. If this was the least bit dangerous, you really are the last person we’d send.”
Meant to allay British businessman Greville Wynne’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) concerns about being enlisted by Her Majesty’s Government and Uncle Sam to help obtain information from a friendly Russian source, the judgement also destroys any illusions he has of being a real-life Johnny Fedora. But while apparently low-risk and certainly not glamorous, Wynne is acutely aware of the importance of his role.
It’s the early 1960s and the nuclear arms race between America and Russia has intensified. Acting on a note smuggled to the US Embassy in Moscow warning that “nuclear war is coming”, M15 and the CIA have decided to collaborate to try and maximise their mole’s potential.
However, with Russian forces tightly surveilling embassy activities, they need someone nobody would suspect to assist. Enter Wynne, a self-employed salesman, specialising in the international trade of British manufacturers’ goods.
Eastern Europe has become more and more lucrative to him, he admits when first meeting government “trade officials”, but Russia? He’d like to “see the temperatures cool off first”. That’s when the lightest of pressures is applied, via a plea that “you’d be doing a real service to Great Britain – and the world”.
Worried at what his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) might think about his extra time away, especially when he can’t tell her the real purpose for his increasingly frequent Russian excursions, it takes him a while to broach the subject. To his surprise though, she appears to take it rather well. “Do stay out of the gulag,” she teases.
Part of the charm of director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) and screenwriter’s Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) take on this true-life tale is their focus on the effect of the secrecy surrounding Wynne’s “work” on his marriage. A previous indiscretion has left their relationship on slightly shaky ground and Cooke and O’Connor exploit that tension, crafting domestic conversations as fraught and knife-edge as any meetings with “friendly” Soviet Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze).
Likewise, the film-making pair also manage to create great warmth in the relationship between Penkovsky and Wynne, as they share tales of domestic life, while fearing that the real purpose of their catch-ups will be uncovered and that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Selling these scenes greatly are the performances of McMafia’s Ninidze, Fargo’s Buckley and Cumberbatch. Buckley in particular does magnificently well, turning what could have been a peripheral role into a pivotal one, while Georgian-actor Ninidze shows why he’s in demand as a character actor on American television. Cumberbatch, meanwhile, delivers another terrific turn, a truly committed and transformative one as the last half-hour very demonstrably showcases.
If there’s a slight disappointment, it’s in the lack of screentime or development of Rachel Brosnahan’s (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) “American agency official”. A role that’s clearly underwritten, it seems a waste of a fabulous talent.
That said, fans of Cold War thrillers like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will revel in this atmospheric and well-paced tale of an unlikely hero who helped avert potential global catastrophe.
- James Croot, STUFF
The Courier is now playing at Light House Cinema!