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The Courier

Peter W Sheehan  |  25 March 2021

THE COURIER. 2020 UK. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Angus Wright, Rachel Brosnahan, and Jessie Buckley. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language). 111 min.

This Czech Republic-British thriller is an historical drama about a British travelling salesman, based in London, who was recruited by the Intelligence Service in Britain (MI6) to courier secret messages from an agent in Soviet Russia during the Cold War. The link-up between the two agents was critical to ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. Events are set in the 1960s, and the film relates an important episode in 20th century espionage.

In the movie, a reticent 41-yr-old businessman, Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), is helped by CIA (Brosnahan) and MI6 (Wright) operatives to establish a secret partnership with Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze), a Soviet Officer. Oleg was responsible for a major committee for scientific research in the Soviet Union, but was, in fact, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s foreign-intelligence agency. Oleg was privately alarmed by the speed of the arms race, and expressed to Britain his willingness to pass Soviet nuclear information to the West. His intelligence was critical to prevent a nuclear confrontation in the Cuba Crisis, and the secrets he passed on were important enough to prevent the occurrence of a third world war.

The ordinariness of Wynne was exactly what MI6 wanted. Secrets were safer, in its opinion, when they are passed across to someone who has no obvious formal connection with government. The authorities knew, by looking back into Greville’s past, however, that he was capable of deception.

Formal contact began when Wynne had a lunch with two people (Wright and Brosnahan), ostensibly from the UK’s Board of Trade. He realised soon what was being asked of him, and recognised his lunch companions as undercover agents working for MI6 and the CIA. After a telling silence at the dinner table among the three people who were present, he agreed to what was asked of him. Sent to Russia, Greville (with CIA and MI6 assistance) established contact with Oleg about the Soviet’s nuclear program. Oleg was allowed to travel frequently to the West, and Wynne travelled just as much to Russia until the frequency of Wynne’s trips aroused Soviet suspicion that top-secret Soviet information was flowing somehow to the West.

The film is an involving Cold War drama. Greville’s espionage activities had a significant effect on the relationship between himself and his wife, Sheila (Buckley), who was expected to be kept unaware of what was happening, lest she be anxious about the danger her husband had put himself and his family into. Mistakenly, she interpreted his frequent trips abroad as evidence of a marital affair. Oleg and Greville always took pains to hide what they did from their wives.

The spy intrigue of the movie derives its strength from the knowledge that the film is based on true events. For the most part, the film lacks terrorist-type action, but its truth-base sustains the tension, as the movie progresses to a highly emotional climax.

In the film, there are final scenes of torture, and the film portrays impressively the courage of both Wynne and Oleg, who was executed. The acting of Cumberbatch and Ninidze is excellent, and Cumberbatch’s studied pensiveness plays a significant part in the movie’s impact, which is directed intentionally by Dominic Cooke to be measured. The credits roll as the real Wynne comes onto the screen, looking amazingly like Cumberbatch. The effect is dramatic.

The nature and style of this movie reminds one of a John Le Carre thriller, which typically communicates intrigue by dramatically cementing historical events. This movie’s action impact is steadier than that, and the film’s overall thrust is cerebral more than emotional. The moral consciences of Wynne and Oleg emerge, but only when the plot allows them to surface.

This film tells a story that is well worth telling, and truth sustains its force.

Roadshow Films
Released 25 March 2021
Peter W Sheehan is an associate of Jesuit Media


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