British period dramas often have a reserved, stuffy quality to them that keeps the audience at a distance.
While viewers get to know the characters and feel for their plight, it’s hard to connect as an audience member to the genre.
Director Dominic Cooke keeps his latest feature in this standoffish distance, but it becomes something more with compelling characters and intriguing spy-craft at the ready.
Based on real events, The Courier follows businessman Greville Wynne who is recruited by American and British intelligence to serve as an intermediary traveling to the Soviet Union in order to receive vital information that could put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the core of The Courier are a pair of exceptional leading performances that elevate the entire film beyond simple period drama or espionage thriller territory.
Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch gives a stirring performance as Wynne, invigorating the character with a nervous energy that heightens his portrayal of the “amateur” spy. Cumberbatch is a very deliberate actor whose internal monologue often reads like a book across his face, which serves him well here as the everyman Wynne begins to fray at the edges under immense pressure.
His sincerity and earnestness make Cumberbatch a perfect counterpart to Merab Ninidze, playing the Soviet informant Oleg Penkovsky with a hardened shell that melts quietly over the course of the film as Wynne and Penkovsky form their unlikely bond.
Ninidze approaches the role from the burden Penkovsky feels weighing on him, knowledge that could lead to nuclear war and conflict over if and how to provide a warning to the other side in order to stop it.
The film’s supporting cast does a solid job of supporting Cumberbatch in his performance within Britain, especially Rachel Brosnahan as an ambitious CIA operative trying subtly to take charge of the operation and Jessie Buckley as Wynne’s suspicious wife whose appearance doesn’t truly come into its own until her final scenes.
Penned by Tom O’Connor, the screenplay approaches Wynne and Penkovsky’s relationship as a dance, an unromantic courtship of wary acquaintances seeking to prevent nuclear war.
While the spy work is important to propelling the story forward, the film takes great care to fully establish trust between the pair – and through Cumberbatch and Ninidze’s performances – pull the audience into the narrative because of the characters as much as what they are doing.
The Courier grounds itself within the true history of the Cuban Missile Crisis by frequently using news broadcasts and speeches from figures like President John F. Kennedy to set the stage for events to come.
The only exception in this regard, however, is when Cooke puts the focus on Communist Party chairman Nikita Khrushchev, casting actor Vladimir Chuprikov to play the Soviet leader so audiences can see Penkovsky attending high-level meetings to blend the world of reality and docudrama.
The film’s pacing is cumbersome and meticulous as serious period spy films tend to be and casual viewers could become bored or lost in the minutia. The Courier doesn’t have the splashy spectacle of undercover spy-craft that propels action forward, but the distinct dramatic dialogue on a scene-to-scene basis reminds favorably of the Tom Hanks-led 2015 film Bridge of Spies.
A demonstrative, rousing score from composer Abel Korzeniowski heightens the cerebral tension within scenes, especially as suspicions begin to rise from all sides as The Courier hurtles its way toward the tumultuous third act.
In many ways, The Courier perhaps suffered more than most films did as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a solid debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was set up for a strong fall theatrical release through Lionsgate that would have drawn in ardent cinephiles hungry for period drama.
Three times delayed and pushed back, The Courier stumbled out in March to little fanfare as a relative afterthought during the midst of awards season.
Now available widely to rent or stream on demand, the solemn, yet powerful character-focused espionage drama should prove to be worth the wait for fans of John le Carré novels and slow-burn cinema.