The Courier, much like its lead carrier played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has gone on a very long journey. The film, originally titled Ironbark, premiered in January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival and was scooped up for U.S. release by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate. It was all set to be released in August of 2020 with some hope of getting a few awards come this season thanks to popular leading actors and a cold war tale that the Academy usually eats up.
Then 2020 happened and The Courier kind of faded away into obscurity with the studios seeming to lose interest in any award hopes the film might have had. The move got pushed and pushed until this week when it will finally release in the doldrums of the release schedule at, what we hope is, the tail end of COVID-19’s slow death march of the film industry. Not a very auspicious turn of events for the film, especially since it’s good enough to deserve better.
Director: Dominic Cooke
Release Date: March 19, 2021 (Theatrical)
The Courier (not to be confused with the 2019 film of the same name) is based on the true story of a British businessman who helped the U.S. and U.K. governments sneak massive amounts of secret information out of Russia. Greville Wynne is an unassuming salesman of sorts who gets sucked into international espionage when Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Russian official, decides that his country is going too far and nuclear war is far too close. The British government, prompted by CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), enlists him to travel to Russia under the guise of his job and sneak out documents to help them spy, including the documents that led to the discovery of missiles in Cuba by the U.S., which triggered the Cuban missile crisis.
The film is a classic spy thriller in almost every sense, with every cliche you can possibly think of crammed in there. There’s a meeting in a shadowy parking lot, conversations in theaters, and tense montages as we wonder if our hero will be caught. Thankfully, it also executes these cliches fantastically well and, when the movie veers away from the traditional spy thriller thanks to the fact that both men are eventually caught, it pivots nicely into its more emotional punches, leaving the actors to carry the emotional punches through to the end of the film. The movie may not be entirely original but its story is executed well enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat.
It helps that director Dominic Cooke stages and shoots much of the film like a play. With his background being in the theater that makes sense, of course, but it doesn’t always translate. Cooke is nearly obsessed with framing throughout the film, placing his actors in clearly demarked areas of the screen that help bolster the tension or drive home the scene’s purpose, much like staging. In one early scene Greville and his wife are conversing, her in the kitchen and him in the living room, the separation hinting not just at the gender roles at the time but also the marital troubles, although at this point the audience knows nothing of them. At another time a subway station bears over Greville and Oleg as they discuss defecting, dwarfing them for a moment and helping visualize the immense pressure they are under.
What also stands out about The Courier is its story is more about relationships than spycraft. The movie spends more time developing Greville and Oleg’s friendship and Greville’s deteriorating homelife than it does on any real spy stuff. It helps keep the film more about the men than the drama and makes the movie’s ending all the more powerful.
<a href=”http://www.flixist.com/?p=33400″>Good</a>Still, the film can’t quite pick up every strand as well as it needs to. Brosnahan is woefully wasted as the CIA agent. The movie hints at her character’s motivations and desires but mostly ignores her, leading to her feeling more like a McGuffin than a character. The film also mishandles its ending as it rushes through Greville’s time in a Russian jail, often seeming to place emotional punches over logical storytelling. The film could have done with ten more minutes or so to play out Greville’s tortures, expand on Brosnahan’s character, and deliver a bit more coherent conclusion overall.
Cumberbatch is, as usual, fantastic. He layers Greville with nuance and conviction, though, judging from the clip of the actual Greville at the end of the film, he’s more interested in playing the part than mimicking the man. It helps to deliver a better film, frankly, and one that’s full of just the right amount of tension and emotion for a true-story spy thriller. The Courier might be getting dumped into a traditional dead zone that’s even deader than usual but that doesn’t mean you should miss it.