This installment of the Passage to Espionage column is a tad different: a look at a spy film based on real events and people. The Courier (2020) stars the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, “an ordinary man with no connections to government” who becomes entangled in espionage during the early 1960s. Wynne is an affable Brit with a taste for the sybaritic life. An engaging businessman who travels abroad for his job, he is deemed an appropriate choice by both MI-6 and the CIA for a onetime task of transporting Soviet Union top-secret documents. His Moscow contact is Oleg Penkovsky (portrayed by Merab Ninidze), a revered GRU colonel who is covertly working for the West. Penkovsky is a man of conscience who sees a schism between loyalty to country and the potential for a Doomsday scenario. Upon interacting with Wynne, Penkovsky finds him sympatico and becomes adamant that the reluctant recruit be assigned to permanent courier duties Wynne is thus propelled against his will into the dangerous universe of international intrigue. His duties wreak havoc on his home life and hurl him into a bond with Penkovsky that becomes a driving element in the later actions of both men. Their relationship can be likened to a bromance heightened by perpetual peril.
Indeed, the crux of the film hinges on the relationship between Wynne and Penkovsky. The casting of the roles was essential to ensure the story’s successful transfer to the screen. Merab Ninidze holds his own with the stellar Cumberbatch and their interaction embodies the innate tension of two individuals from different backgrounds who quietly bear the weight of the world on their shoulders. Despite the media coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, neither agent can disclose to their families what they are doing to avert impending global catastrophe. And while their handlers acknowledge the enormity of what is happening, there’s a sense of detachment on the part of MI-6’s Dickie Francis (enacted by Angus Wright) who is pragmatic about the casualties of Cold War. His CIA counterpart Emily Donovan (the stylishly attired and coiffed Rachel Brosnahan) appears more empathetic, which unfortunately comes across as a dated gender stereotype rather than a specific attribute of her personality. Whether this is a weakness in the performance, the writing, or the direction is difficult to determine.
To his credit, director Dominic Cooke shuns special effects and razzle-dazzle cinematography. He opts for Old School, in the non-pejorative sense, flair which suits the timeframe and subject matter perfectly. Tensions are heightened through the precision of Tariq Anwar’s and Gareth C. Scales’ editing, and the wise decision to let Ninidze and Cumberbatch work their cinematic magic. Many will comment on Cumberbatch’s astounding metamorphosis from paunchy to nearly skeletal as Wynne changes from well-fed salesman to trim secret agent to starving prisoner. Yet that physical feat is less stunning than a sequence in which an enraged Wynne lashes out at his young son for forgetting to pack rain gear during a family camping trip. The displaced anger driving Wynne of course has nothing to do with his kid’s innocuous faux pas. The explosive emotion, the pent-up anxiety, are palatable in how Cumberbatch delivers Wynne’s tirade. Facial expression and vocal delivery are utterly spot on.
The other scene that registered profoundly with me is when Wynne and Penkovsky attend a Bolshoi Ballet performance. The dancing is so emotive, artistically bridging the gap between the men’s respective cultures; providing a poignancy to the risks they are taking as well as what’s at stake for the world at large. The camera dwells on the faces of Ninidze and Cumberbatch as they wordlessly express a myriad of emotions. The scene pulses with quiet potency.
Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski composed the evocative score. Some of the track titles are amusing: “Trenchcoats vs. KGB” is particularly cheeky/wry. The last track on the recording is “Maybe We Are Only Two People,” a reflection of what Penkovsky and Wynne accomplished. They never got the frontpage news coverage that Nikita Khrushchev or President Kennedy did, but through the film of The Courier they can now be more broadly acknowledged and appreciated for their service and sacrifice during a time when a threat of annihilation was all too probable.