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If thrust into a dangerous situation, we’d all like to believe that we’d respond as a hero. We are constantly exposed to movies about normal people who make bold moves when faced with threat or oppression, and we’d all like to think that we’d react similarly to those protagonists under similar circumstances in our own lives. It’s empowering to watch films with such messages, and that’s particularly true when it comes to stories about real people.

Dominic Cooke’s The Courier is one such story, and thanks to an awesome performance from star Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s a memorable one. You may go into the feature not being aware of the extraordinary efforts made by ordinary British citizen Greville Wynne during the Cold War, but you’ll walk away remembering his incredible bravery thanks to what is a tense and well-paced thriller, with the turn from its lead being the great highlight.

Set in 1960, The Courier begins as Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intelligence colonel, makes an incredibly bold move by sending clandestine word to the American embassy in Moscow that he is willing to provide military secrets to the United States and Great Britain. Lacking faith in the stability of Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov), Penkovsky fears that the escalating arms race could result in nuclear war, and commits himself to providing all of the information that he can to the CIA and MI6. The issue faced, however, is physically making that happen.

Knowing that they can’t send in any of their own people, American and British agents Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) tap an ordinary man for the courier job: Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a businessman who frequently does work in Eastern Europe. Wynne is asked by the spies to start pursuing new contracts in the Soviet Union, and while doing so regularly takes packages from Penkovsky and smuggles them out of the country. He is in no way trained in espionage, and is utterly terrified, but he obliges out of duty to his country and with promise that his wife (Jessie Buckley) and son would be taken care of should the worst occur.

As Wynne continues to make regular trips, his relationship with Penkovsky is enhanced, as the two men live in two different worlds, but bond over shared values. All the while, however, tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States/Great Britain continue to escalate, and the work being done becomes ever more important as Khrushchev sets plans in motion to equip Cuba with atomic missiles – in doing so eventually instigating the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Courier has a great story to tell, and it tells it well.

Given how many movies we’ve seen about the work of spies during the Cold War, it’s practically dumbfounding that this is the first time that Greville Wynne’s story has been adapted for the big screen. With great credit going to screenwriter Tom O’Connor, The Courier isn’t the flashiest title in the subgenre – forgoing any fight scenes and featuring only one very quick chase sequences – but it succeeds in escalating drama and tension by getting you to emotionally invest in the characters while real historical context constantly raises the temperature. Anyone who knows about the actual events even in broad strokes knows how things ultimately turned out with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it’s fascinating to discover how the efforts depicted in the movie effectively and quietly impacted everything that happened, and the relationship at the heart of the film between Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky is beautiful.

Benedict Cumberbatch shines as Greville Wynne, delivering a wonderful, empathetic performance.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in The Courier is a particularly fascinating one, if not simply because of its effectiveness in showcasing a key depth in the star’s talent. We’ve come to know Cumberbatch through his portrayal of showy and bombastic characters like his Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange, and notable real life figures like Julian Assange or Alan Turing, but what makes Greville Wynne a standout part for the actor is how totally ordinary the businessman-turned-spy is. He has charm that comes from a career in sales, but that’s the only weapon in his arsenal, and watching the film’s drama play through him it’s exciting to see him handle the fear, and eventually become emboldened by it instead of being weakened – without any dash of “Hollywood.”

Additionally deserving credit for his excellent turn is Merab Ninidze. As much as Greville Wynne is risking in The Courier, Oleg Penkovsky is risking far more, and the blend of emotions that emerges is fantastic to watch. There is terror that lives behind his eyes throughout the performance – both from the potential for nuclear annihilation and consequences of his disloyalty to the Soviet Union – and it’s powerful enough to generate genuine empathy, but what’s far more potent is the genuineness and kindness that is clear in his spirit, evoked through his friendship with the titular character. It’s heartwarming without ever feeling hokey, and adds to the movie’s stakes.

The Courier has a fantastic message for the current moment.

The story of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky is one incredibly deserving of the big screen treatment for the purposes of getting people to recognize their remarkable life-saving contributions to history – but that’s not the only reason. During a time in modernity that is rife with extreme conflict, it’s nice to see a film that is inherently about two men from entirely different political worlds coming together for the benefit of mankind. It’s a great message that comes wrapped in a solid thriller that features some excellent performances, making The Courier a movie worth seeking out.

7 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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