by Hope Madden
Your regular Joe Schmo can do anything. He can save the world. He can even learn to love ballet.
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a garden variety salesman in England in 1960, right about the time a highly decorated Soviet leader and member of Khruschev’s inner circle found a clever way to announce to the right people in the West that he wanted to share intel.
Think of The Courier as England’s version of Bridge of Spies, sort of. There’s even some cast in common.
Essentially it is a solidly made if tight-lipped political thriller about an unlikely duo racing against time to save humanity.
A bit like The Imitation Game. (Again, cast in common.)
Director Dominic Cooke has had remarkable success directing the British stage. His first foray into features, 2017’s On Chesil Beach, suffered from a choice to keep the protagonists at arm’s length. The same problem hampers the effectiveness of The Courier.
Merab Ninidze does what he can to come closer. As Oleg Penkovsky, or Alex, as his friend Greville calls him, Ninidze finds opportunities for the character to surrender to his own warm nature. He gives the Russian “traitor” a tenderness and heart that brightens even the greyest scenes.
Cumberbatch is characteristically solid, his demeanor just the right mixture of vanity, insecurity and good-natured humility to make him the perfect salesman. Likewise, Jessie Buckley (Oscar-worthy in last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) provide spot-on support as Greville’s wife and CIA contact, respectively.
The true story itself is tragic, astonishing and in need of public airing. We should know that these men existed and what we owe them. But regardless of a slew of sharp performances, Cooke plays it too safe, leaving us with little to remember.
There is nothing wrong with The Courier. It’s well made and informative. Which is to say, it’s kind of a waste of a great cast and an even better story.