The Courier

The Courier (2021): An engrossing Cold War spy thriller

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch; Merab Ninidze; Rachel Brosnahan; Jessie Buckley

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rating: * * * & a half

The Von Trapp Family of ‘Sound of Music’ fame fled the Nazis and settled in the US in Vermont on a farm with sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria. A Soviet agent in this compelling spy thriller wants to be rehabilitated in Montana because it reminds him of his beloved Russia.

Looking for car chases, shootouts and frenetic action? Forget it. It is, after all, a British film, and the Brits are, well, low-key. More cerebral than muscle. That said, let me say that ‘The Courier’ is well directed by an accomplished theatre veteran, brilliantly acted and thoroughly engrossing from the first act, emotional in the second, and unnerving in the final.

Through it all, Abel Korzeniowski’s marvellous soundtrack embellishes the narrative, in delightful sequences featuring Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again to Tchaikovsky's spectacular Swan Lake performed by the ‘Bolshoi’ which many Mumbaikars, have been privileged to see.

In this fact-based film from Dominic Cooke, Greville Wynne, the British businessman essayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, cries at a ballet performance in Moscow. Likewise, his companion, the Soviet military officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who is unnerved by Soviet supremo Nikita Khrushchev's rantings against the Western bloc (“We will bury them”) reaches out to the Americans through a couple of innocent tourists - such is his desperation.

The film asserts that ordinary people can be truly heroic despite the titular character's self-deprecating description of being" just a salesman." And such an unprepossessing one too, most unlike the flashy show offs that Cumberbatch customarily essays. It is this very quality of ordinariness that makes him the perfect candidate for the spycraft the viewer sees unspooling during the Cold War. Wynne knows next to nothing of espionage and is deliberately left in the dark as viewers see in a key scene, when the door is shut in his face after he escorts Oleg to his MI6 and CIA handlers. It is a brilliant scene capping previous expositions which reveal motivations such as loyalty, friendship, patriotism and, prevention of nuclear war.

Relationships are well etched. Wynne's long suffering wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) thinks he's being unfaithful again. And from being mere spooks, Wynne and Oleg aka Alex become friends, a bond that is highlighted when Wynne insists on going back to the USSR to help Oleg who has been nabbed by Khrushchev's murderous cohort.

Needless to say, there is an abundance of spy movie tropes apart from gadgets like a secret camera which Oleg locks in an easily accessible drawer! This costs him heavily.

It is in the tense third act set in Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Soviet Federal Security Service, its grimness showcased in Sean Bobbitt’s moody cinematography, that the viewer finally sees the iron hand of Soviet Communism where everyone is a snitch. "Would I be putting myself in danger?” clueless Wynne had asked his handlers. Alas, he never sees what's in store for him from the KGB (Guantanamo Bay seems like a lark with its waterboarding and rock music all night long). The end credits elaborate on the tragic consequences of hostile geopolitics. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Sigh.

Reviewed by Ronita Torcato