mon 18/10/2021

The Courier review - lacklustre spy movie | reviews, news & interviews

The Courier review - lacklustre spy movie

The Courier review - lacklustre spy movie

True tale of Cold War espionage fails to throw out much heat despite stellar cast

Merab Ninidze as GRU officer Penkovsky and Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, the unlikely spy

It’s always a bit worrying when distributors choose to open a film in August at the best of times, but after 18 months of covid playing havoc with release schedules, the backlog of titles has to be dealt with somehow. The Courier is one such movie, seeping out now in selected art house cinemas: if it doesn’t set the box office on fire, the distributors can blame the sunshine, not the drabness of the movie itself.

This tale of Cold War skulduggery, based on a true story, has been waiting for a UK release since before 2020 and provoked mixed reviews on its American release in March.  

On paper it looks good: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, the English businessman who was recruited by MI6 in 1960 because he travelled a lot in Eastern Europe. Embodying a British gent of the old school, Cumberbatch is paired up with the great Georgian actor Merab Ninidze (Homeland, McMafia, Berlin Station) in the role of Oleg Penkovsky, the GRU officer who smuggled top-secret information to the CIA and MI6. As well as co-conspirators, the two of them became friends - cue outings to a jazz club where they do the twist and to the Moscow ballet where Swan Lake makes them cry. The Cuban missile crisis is averted because of their daring deeds, but not before there are scenes of prison torture which allows at least one of the actors to show their thespian chops with a little nudity and head shaving. Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvellous Mrs Maisel) in a stiff blonde wig is thrown into the cast as a plucky CIA operative (below), presumably to keep an American audience interested. Unfortunately The Courier is so slow and drab that there's plenty of time to play Cold War movie cliché bingo.Rachel Bronahan in The CourierGet ready to mark your card. Desaturated images to denote the drabness of the era, tick. Ominous droning music with occasional anxious violins, tick. Most exteriors shot at night to avoid the expense of dressing modern locations, tick. Beautifully preserved period vehicles rolling by just to fill out the back of the frame, tick. Caviar on toast, vodka in crystal glasses, tick. Cigarette packets concealing tiny spy cameras, tick. Bugs in every bedroom, tick. Archive of Kruschev and Kennedy on the TV at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, tick. Vintage radios issuing warnings on what to do in the event of nuclear disaster, tick. Full house!

The script isn’t any fresher, with lines of dialogue like “every Russian is an eye of the State” and the only laugh comes when Wynne’s baffled wife complains to a female friend that her hubby is unusually energetic in bed. And it’s not as if the story hasn’t been told before. The BBC made a drama serial, Wynne and Penkovsky in ’85 and a docudrama in 2007. Wynne himself wrote two books about his adventures as an agent before succumbing to alcoholism and cancer in 1990. Indeed, the best moment in The Courier comes in the end credits when the real Greville Wynne pops up in an archive interview. He looks like a real chancer, giddy with the memory of his adventures. It's a shame this movie didn’t capture that spirit.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters