Ask the average American who Oleg Penkovsky was, and you’ll likely get a blank look. Ask a covert operations nerd who Oleg Penkovsky was, and they’ll tell you that he was one of the most important spies in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This is not Penkovsky’s story, however. The Courier instead tells the story of Greville Wynne, the agent of British intelligence who ferried Penkovsky’s intelligence to the West. While not particularly original, the film is a well-executed, old school spy thriller reminiscent of the works of John le Carré.
As played by the superbly qualified Benedict Cumberbatch, Wynne is a businessman recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service and the American Central Intelligence Agency to ferry secrets from Penkovsky (played here by Merab Ninidze) over the Iron Curtain. This type of spy film runs on its characters more than most. Due to its lack of brutal fight scenes like Jason Bourne’s, or girls and gadgets like James Bond’s, there are no distractions to cover for uninteresting characters. Thankfully, Cumberbatch and Ninidze bring the charisma and chemistry necessary to keep things engaging. Cumberbatch excels at bringing an intensity and vulnerability to his roles in equal measure. This is something that doesn’t show through in the early stages but the movie puts this nuance fully on display during the film’s prison scenes. On top of that, Cumberbatch and Ninidze play off of one another perfectly and the highpoints are when the pair share the screen. The low points come when the film turns to Wynne’s home life, embracing the cliché storyline of the protagonist’s significant other taking their spouse’s newfound secretive disposition to mean they are having an affair (which seems almost obligatory for serious spy thrillers). Jessie Buckley puts her all into it as Wynne’s wife, but even that cannot elevate the side story beyond the trite cliché it is.
All in all, 3 out of 5.
A solid spy thriller to liven up a dull night.