by Chris Connor
Cold War films can perhaps feel pedestrian and slow, so different was the period to the one we live in today, yet they often highlight the tumultuous nature of the time and how close the world was to the brink of nuclear disaster. The Courier from On Chesil Beach’s Dominic Cooke focuses largely on the British and Soviet stalemate of the early 1960s with both sides aiming to get key information on their rivals next moves. While the film premiered at Sundance 2020, it has recently opened in UK Cinemas.
In an effort to elicit information from the Russians UK and US intelligence, recruit an everyday businessman, Greville Wynne played by Benedict Cumberbatch to help Oleg Penkovsky defect to the West. One of the main strengths of The Courier is the attention to period detail, this really evokes early 60s Moscow and London and the unease of the time with radio and TV announcers talking about the dangers of nuclear fallout and depicting some of the key events, including the construction of the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis.
The relationship developed between Wynne and Penkovosky feels earned and in many ways is the films heartbeat showing both the similarities and gulfs between the worlds of these two family men and the effects their respective actions have had.
Cooke builds a real sense of tension particularly in the film’s final two acts and those unfamiliar with the story the film is based on might find themselves shocked at the direction the film heads quite suddenly. The unexpected nature of the narrative stops this from feeling like a carbon copy of other Cold War films and gives it a distinctive tone.
The cast really hold together what could otherwise have become quite a dreary bogged down film. Cumberbatch who is having quite the 2021 with his role in Jane Campion’s Power Of The Dog really excels as the average Joe drawn into the murky world of espionage. Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame really compliments Cumberbatch with the forward thinking and tenacious Emily Donovan, a key part in the film’s narrative and the link between US and UK intelligence, it is great to see Brosnahan in a more dramatic role offsetting her more comedic roles.
Merab Ninidize is also superb as Penkovsky really selling the effect his defection and betrayal has on his family and mind-set. The only slight drawbacks from the cast is Jessie Buckley’s relatively light role as Sheila, Geraint’s wife and while she does have moments to shine she feels certainly more in the background, Anton Lesser is also given far too meagre a role for such a talented actor as the director of MI6.
Held together by a fine set of lead performances and exquisite attention to period detail, The Courier while not reinventing the wheel is a fine Cold War espionage film that dives into one of the most important operations of the era from both a British and American perspective and really sells the tension on all sides of the conflict and the importance of the information obtained.
The Courier is out in cinemas now!