Review by C.J. Bunce
The Courier is the movie that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy promised to be (and failed miserably at). The excellent spy film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in yet another unique performance that only he could deliver was an unfortunate bit of pandemic collateral damage. It premiered in January 2020 at Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark, and was slated to arrive in theaters to a wider audience last year. That means it also missed Oscar contention for the 2020 contest, where The Courier easily would have been the best film. Because of a brief March 2021 theater push, it is apparently still in the running for 2022 ceremony, which makes it the only major contender for not only the best film, but also Cumberbatch’s performance. As the masses now finally get to see it, streaming to homes thanks to Amazon Prime (finally with an August release in both the U.S. and UK), we’ll just call it the best drama so far for 2021.
Yes, the already lean actor lost 21 pounds for the role of Greville Wynne, the real-life English businessman who was tapped by the CIA and MI6 to transport critical intelligence back and forth with a senior Russian official, helping to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from Cumberbatch as Wynne and Homeland and Without Remorse Russian actor Merab Ninidze (who should be viewed as a supporting actor contender) as Oleg Penkovsky, the Russian colonel and double agent who provided plans and descriptions of the nuclear rocket launch sites in Cuba to the West via Wynne, directly giving President Kennedy the upper hand in his tactics with Cuba. The events before and after the crisis are the subject of the film.
Beyond the two leads, the rest of the film opts for good storytelling over historical accuracy. Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) plays the CIA contact that convinces Wynne to expand his business in the USSR, and later to expand the scope of the messages being exchanged. Despite being a contrived character that likely had no real-life counterpart, Brosnahan’s character is a great spy role and she has some of the film’s most dramatic scenes. But the film is really a vehicle to see Cumberbatch take on a character similar on paper to his Oscar-nominated Alan Turing of The Imitation Game, but one that allows the modern man of a thousand genre faces (Doctor Strange, two Khans, Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.) to stretch his portfolio of historical character performances (Turing, Thomas Edison, Stephen Hawking, Billy Bulger, William Pitt, Julian Assange, etc.) into new territory. It’s the relationship and chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze that makes everything work. Jessie Buckley (The Woman in White, Fargo) plays Mrs. Wynne, who was kept in the dark about her husband’s activities. Keep an eye out for Zeljko Ivanek (Homicide, The Manchurian Candidate, Argo, Heroes, The X-Files, A Civil Action, Ellen Foster, Donnie Brasco) perfectly cast as the U.S head of intelligence operations–isn’t it time for Ivanek to get an Oscar nod?
The writing by Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) isn’t the heavily-threaded spy mastery of film adaptations major spy works like Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, but it’s at the top of the movie heap attempting to tap what spy life is really like, at the personal level. Director Dominic Cooke demonstrates in his first major film his understanding of what makes a 1960s Cold War setting a great playing field for suspense and dramatic tension, bolstered by period accurate costumes by Keith Madden (The Woman in Black, Mr. Holmes, The Good Liar).
Cinematography by previous Oscar nominee Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, Sense & Sensibility) may finally allow him to net his Oscar. And the musical score by Abel Korzeniowski (Penny Dreadful, The Nun, Battle for Terra)–the musician who composed a modern score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, brings out the best of Russian notes, with sprawling themes certain to make him an Oscar contender.
We all missed it the theater, but you don’t have to miss it at home. A fantastic spy drama that is the total package, The Courier is streaming now on Amazon Prime.