“The Courier” is a suitable fit for Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor gifted with the capability of factually inhabiting multiple characters. On screen and on stage Cumberbatch easily transforms into another individual.
“Frankenstein”, a stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, was successfuly performed at Britain’s Royal National Theatre in 2011 and subsequently beamed to movie theatres and later transmitted on television with Cumberbatch as the monster. Viewing the production on both occasions, watching Cumberbatch interpreting the gyrating movements of the afflicted miscreation, was further evidence of his mastery in conveying a tortured character. Hollywood applauded with a a Best Lead Actor Oscar nomination in the 2014 film “The Imitation Game”. Acclaim followed a year later for his portrayal of the Prince of Denmark in a London stage production of “Hamlet”.
“The Courier” spotlights Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne (true English sounding name), a mild mannered businessman, drafted by MI-6 and the CIA for spy duty during the 1962 Missile Crisis in Cuba, a stunning political upheaval for John F. Kennedy’s presidency. American aerial photos indicated the Soviets were setting up nuclear-armed missiles on the island, an agressive action setting the world on the brink of nuclear war.
So unfolds a true-life-spy-thrilling throw-back to the cold war era hostility between the United States and Russia. The fact based narrative draws us into the world of espionage when Wynne (Cumberbatch) forges a dangerous covert partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Their collaborative crusade is diverting crucial Soviet information to UK/US intelligence sources. Failure of their endeavor would have opposite after effects: Penkovsky will certainly be branded a traitor to the Soviet Union, while Wynne, a novice at the spy game, will be lauded as a hero in the UK.
Scriptwriter Tom O’Connor, who had a personal interest in the history of Russian American espionage says, “I started reading history books. Oleg Penkovsky is a legendary source that the Americans had in the Soviet Union. One line of one book said Oleg Penkovsky’s contact was a British civilian called Greville Wynne.” That was enough incentive to spur O’Connor into digging up as much play by play as he could about Wynne and Penkovsky. Fragments of their relationship are documented in several books. “There’s enough to understand the basics,” O’Connor says. “A lot of the events were and remain classified, and so sometimes, finding out what exactly happened was a challenge because there is active misinformation being put out by both sides. People don’t necessarily want everything on-the-record.”
The star status of Cumberbatch is overlaid by his skillful transformation into an unassuming courier of top-secret information, thereby validating his acting range. He, and Penkovsky, his partner in crime as it were, became close friends. The film salutes a pair of rather ordinary men who showed extraordinary courage. Both fearful of discovery and the safety of their families, they shared a dedication to the principles of freedom and peace. Their valor however exacted personal agony.
Cumberbatch gives another of his transformative performances (I admire his chameleon talents) that remind of cold war thrillers like “Bridge of Spies” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” where unlikely heroes sublimate potential global conflicts.
Though he has a low public profile, Merab Ninidze isn’t overshadowed by Cumberbatch. The actor born in Georgia (formerly USSR), plays Oleg Penkovsky with a strength of purpose giving earnest emotion to the narrative.
Though they come from different cultures the camaraderie between Wynne and Penkovsky has solid roots. In a sense, the two men are more alike than they think.
Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) has a somewhat limited role as an American agency official. Her immense talent in the popular television series seems under utilized here, but perhaps its an open door to more productive appearances on the big screen.
The film feels like an old time “cloak-and-dagger” pot boiler (a phrase long out of fashion). The current movie going generation will perhaps tag it as old fashioned….. but “The Courier” takes custody of your attention, is edifying and artistically entertaining.