Movie spies typically fall into one of two categories. There are the butterflies — flamboyant secret agents like James Bond or “Atomic Blonde” who behave as conspicuously as possible. And then there are the moth-like kind, who do their best to blend in. The character Benedict Cumberbatch plays in “The Courier” (previously called “Ironbark”) belongs to the latter variety, a fellow so boring that he’s virtually invisible, recruited for the specific purpose that the Russians will never suspect him of working for MI6. Strategically speaking, it’s a good plan, but maybe not the best formula to yield an especially thrilling thriller — although Sundance audiences seemed to enjoy watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Rachel Brosnahan playing a slightly more ostentatious (blond-wigged) CIA agent.
Shaken martinis and martial-arts fight sequences tend to be a lot more sexy than watching whatever Cumberbatch, playing an English salesman named Greville Wynne, does to avoid suspicion in this intermittently interesting espionage drama — basically, going to the ballet, hosting business meetings, drinking with clients, while discreetly passing packages from a high-ranking Russian mole. “The Courier’s” hook is that it’s based on true events, and the underlying history deserves to be shared.
Back in the early 1960s, around the time the Cuban Missile Crisis put the United States on atomic alert, MI6 approached Wynne with an unconventional plan. They’d received word from Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-ranking Soviet military intelligence officer, that he was looking for a way to leak information about the country’s nuclear program. Rather than sending a trained agent to be his contact, they decided to recruit a civilian, who could come and go without attracting too much attention. Since Penkovsky was tasked with stealing Western technology secrets, his colleagues would view the relationship as being advantageous to Russia, not realizing that documents were flowing in the opposite direction.
Normally, a movie like this would probably wind up on British television, but for whatever reason, “The Courier” has been made with the big screen in mind, which means audiences will benefit from a pair of terrific lead performances, handsome widescreen lensing (by Steve McQueen’s go-to DP, Sean Bobbitt) and a lovely waltz-like score (from Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, who also did “Penny Dreadful”). Those might also be there if it had been done as a TV movie — and “The Courier” could well wind up a part of some streaming company’s slate — but director Dominic Cooke has a better budget to work with, and motivation to make the project cinematic.
Screenwriter Tom O’Connor (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”) seems to think he’s landed on something original by treating the bond that developed between Wynne and Penkovsky as an extramarital affair. Trouble is, with all the sneaking around and secret-keeping involved, that’s more or less the default metaphor for illicit bromances, driving everything from Michael Mann’s whistleblower saga “The Insider” to the 3D chess game that was Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Here, the analogy becomes literal, not because there’s anything homoerotic at stake, but since we learn that Wynne had cheated on his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) once before, which makes her understandably suspicious when he starts doing push-ups and disappearing on frequent business trips to the USSR. You know who’s not suspicious? The Russians, with the result that “The Courier” feels a lot less exciting than it might have been, despite a scene when a traitor is shot in the head to make a point to Penkovsky and his fellow GRU officers.
Cooke proves an inspired choice of director for such material (even if the material itself leaves something to be desired), considering the relationship-focused nature of his feature debut, the underrated “On Chesil Beach.” That picture delved into a newlywed couple’s marital problems, and worked quite well until the final stretch, when bad makeup and an awkward leap forward in time threatened to ruin everything. As if to compensate, Cooke makes it a point to deliver a more impactful ending, despite the fact his two main characters are wasting away behind bars by this point. From the looks of it, both actors lost a ton of weight for the time they spent locked up by Russian authorities, which leaves one duly impressed by their performances. In a way, their commitment matches the characters’ sacrifice, lending power to the last act.
A theater director whose experience adapts well to cinema, Cooke once again inspires great work from his ensemble. Cumberbatch has a very particular, somewhat priggish look that lends itself well to period roles — and to a moth-like operative like this in particular, whose life is so drab that he practically gives himself hiccups out of giddiness when MI6 first pitches him the idea. Brosnahan has less to do, but is a welcome presence all the same. A general complaint, which could be budget-based: There are too few extras to flesh out the film, giving the relatively stuffy impression that life stops at the edge of the frame. Despite ongoing conflicts with Russia today, the movie doesn’t feel terribly relevant to our time. Maybe in 60 years, someone will make a movie about Wynne’s modern-day counterpart, but for now, let’s assume he’s hidden in plain sight.