For a while now the spy genre has been in dire need of an entry capable of holding as much emotional weight as it does suspense and thrills, and that refresher seems to have finally arrived.
What sets “The Courier” apart from its fellow genre peers is its earnestness and focus on the characters’ fight for the greater good.
Set in the years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, international salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by MI6 and the CIA, due to his frequent business trips to Russia. Greville is a family man and put off by the idea of being an information mule for British Intelligence, but he is eventually wooed into service for the aforementioned greater good. He starts off a bit clunky – after all, he’s not a professional trained in the espionage arts – but he learns. Greville’s contact in Russia is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), an experienced Russian agent using his services to try and get his family to defect.
The relationship forged between the two men is the centerpiece and the heartbeat of the film. Their motives are relatable and noble, fighting for family and the good of the world. As the stakes rise quite considerably, it is near-impossible not to become invested in the outcome. The morose score, coupled with some top-notch lighting from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), create the perfect tone that is the staple for any spy movie. Tropes and clichés may be present, but when the execution is this admirable, they’re easy to look past.
Director Dominic Cooke sets the milieu with his deliberate and confident directing style. There is no extra fat, this slow-burn does not drag. Creating the right environment may be the most important aspect to a period spy thriller, and Cooke and company made a film that is convincingly from the era.
Rounding out the cast are the other agents, played by Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright, but the emotional support is from actress Jessie Buckley who gives a strong performance as Wynne’s wife, Sheila. The cast really does bring another level that elevates the film and brings a humanity to an at times detached genre.
As the film nears its final hour there is a major shift in focus: it stops being a spy thriller and becomes a prison drama. While this is not nearly as compelling, the set-up is so well done that following these characters through their horrible circumstances does not feel like a chore as you might expect. Cumberbatch’s dedication to his character is on full display as we see him truly transform.
In “The Courier,” Cooke has effectively brought emotion and relatable characters to an often-dry and macho field. His dark tale of Russian turncoats and British Intelligence is charming, thrilling, and packs a lot of heart. It isn’t the best film of the year, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood for cinema that isn’t filled with capes or explosions.
“The Courier” is now playing in select theaters.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.