“The Courier,” a new Benedict Cumberbatch Cold War drama now on PVOD, is the mostly true tale of how an unassuming British businessman helped prevent World War III. “You must convince them you are an ordinary businessman,” he is told, “and nothing more than an ordinary businessman.”
Set in 1962, Cumberbatch is Greville Wynne, a buttoned-down Brit chosen by a joint task force, CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6’s Bertrand (Anton Lesser), to go undercover and act as a courier between them and Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Wynne’s down-to-earth manner and the fact that he already was doing business in Eastern Europe made him a perfect undercover agent.
As presented, the job was simple. Travel to Moscow under the pretense of work, up a package from Penkovsky and return home. Of course, international intrigue is never that easy, particularly when the information they are passing back and forth is related to preventing a nuclear confrontation.
When the Americans learn that Russia has positioned nuclear warheads on Cuba it becomes a race to get Penkovsky to safety. Out of a sense of loyalty to his business partner-turned-friend, Wynne volunteers to make one more trip to Russia.
“The Courier” is an old-fashioned espionage drama that is more about relationships than it is about James Bond style antics. Loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness go hand-in-hand in the complicated game of making the world a safer place and it is in its portrayal of those qualities that “The Courier” shines.
Wynne has several important relationships in the film. There is his wife, Jessie Buckley bringing much to an underwritten role, and his handler Emily, but it is with Penkovsky that he truly bonds. Trust forms over dinners and even at the ballet, but it is their shared desire to prevent a war that binds them.
Cumberbatch brings much to the role, allowing true feelings to slip past Wynne’s stiff-upper-lip. It’s subtle yet commanding work that steers the film past its grey-ish, icy façade to a place where the cloak-and-dagger story becomes driven by feelings and not intrigue.
Cumberbatch‘s wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he didn’t have such a strong actor playing Penkovsky. Ninidze plays the Russian as an idealogue, a man convinced his country is playing a very dangerous game with the world, It’s a quietly powerful performance, one where what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Ninidze nails it, playing a man whose every move could have massive consequences for him and his family.
“The Courier” is a welcome addition to the Cold War genre.