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VOD Review: The Courier

April 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Courier, a new spy thriller that delivers in terms of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” entertainment, tells the true story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mild-mannered English salesman who was hired to sneak documents out of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s.

This plan is masterminded in the film by CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), who receive a covert message from Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) warning of a potential nuclear war.

They view Greville as the perfect mole due to his salesman personality, and send him to the Soviet Union under the cover of a business trip to create an alliance with Oleg and smuggle crucial information out from behind the Iron Curtain. To put things into perspective, this information, which was obtained by Oleg at great personal risk to himself, would help put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The story itself is an inherently intriguing one, and The Courier does a fine job of documenting this fascinating bit of history regarding these two figures who helped pull us back from the brink of nuclear disaster. At the heart of the film is the friendship that forms between Greville and Oleg, both family men who are risking everything in order to protect the world. Becoming a spy takes a huge toll on Greville as well, who leaves behind a wife (Jesse Buckley) who comes to fear that he is cheating on her during his frequent trips to Moscow, and a young son (Keir Hills) who seems curious about the tensions with the Russians when Oleg comes to visit their home.

The film does a good job of capturing a sense of Soviet-era paranoia. With KGB agents behind every corner, and frequent warnings everyone they interact with could be a potential spy, Greville and Oleg are constantly looking over their shoulders. This is all performed very well by the film’s two leads. Ninidze delivers a sympathetic portrayal of Penkovsky, his performance becoming quite poignant as he accepts his fate. Cumberbatch delivers a strong performance as well, a natural fit to portray an unassuming everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances that force him to grow more courageous as the film goes on.

The film is directed with a sure hand by Dominic Cooke, who previously made the underrated On Chesil Beach, and he does a fine job of dramatizing this story on screen. Cooke is working from an engaging screenplay by Tom O’Connor, which serves as a compelling look at the horrors of communism, and the genuine threat that it posed throughout the 20th century. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is also strong, doing a good job of capturing the film’s shadowy spaces and hushed late night meetings.

This is a piece of classic, sturdy filmmaking, with its familiarity in tone and structure not feeling like a downfall and actually being one of its key strengths. It feels like a throwback to the era that the film is set in, and that’s not a bad thing. All around, The Courier is a very solid Cold War thriller that builds towards a surprisingly emotional last act, which is heightened by the excellent performances from Ninidze and Cumberbatch.

The Courier is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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