Couriers tickle our fancy, don’t they? Charging about, taking packages from one place to another, without ever knowing what they contain. In Zachary Adler’s 2019 thriller, the courier was Olga Kurylenko, unwittingly charged with delivering a poison gas bomb to a crime lord by motorbike. In the straight-to-video action movie of 2012, the courier was Jeffrey Dean Morgan, caught up in a rather muddled story involving a murderous Elvis impersonator tantalisingly known as Evil Sivle… And as for the entire career of Postman Pat – don’t let me commence.
This time around, the courier is Benedict Cumberbatch, in a spy drama based on real events and set in the early 1960s. He plays Greville Wynne, a slightly dodgy businessman who was recruited by MI6 to be the deliberately amateurish contact of a top level defector in Moscow, Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence colonel who supplied extensive and vital information to the West about the Russian nuclear arsenal, including details of the deployment of missiles to Cuba in the summer of 1962.
Even though he was arrested by the Soviets on 22 October 1962 and executed the following year, Penkovsky’s information apparently significantly influenced President John F Kennedy’s response to the Cuban missile crisis of October to November that year. He is widely regarded as one of the most valuable Soviet sources ever recruited by the West (although Peter Wright expressed scepticism in Spycatcher). For his part, the courier Greville Wynne was arrested in Russia in May 1963 and jailed for eight years, serving time in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow until he was released in a spy swap in 1964.
This story has been developed by the scriptwriter Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) and the director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, and formerly the artistic director of the Royal Court) in the most straightforward way, concentrating on the relationship of trust that develops between Wynne and Penkovsky. Unlike the spy dramas of John le Carré, which discover human weaknesses and moral ambiguities on both sides in the Cold War, this film is not at all ambivalent about whose team it’s on, portraying the USSR as evil and opening with Nikita Khrushchev recklessly threatening to bury the West. (Khrushchev, incidentally, is played by an actor, while Kennedy is represented through archive footage.)
Penkovsky is shown here to be concerned only with saving the world from imminent nuclear war (although some historians have suggested his motives were more mixed). He’s played superbly by the Georgian actor Merab Ninidze (Vadim in McMafia), who is easily a match for Cumberbatch in the scenes in which they bond over drink and meetings with each other’s children. It’s quite the bromance. “Maybe we’re only two people, but this is how things change,” says Penkovsky. There’s a brilliant scene at the ballet where, watching Swan Lake, everything wordlessly turns to horror as the pair realise they have been compromised.
Wynne’s glamorous CIA control, Emily (Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel) is an enterprising “composite”, or, to put it another way, concocted figure (given all the real CIA operatives involved at the time were men). Jessie Buckley plays the unrewarding role of Wynne’s wife − being constantly kept in the dark and suspecting her husband of having an affair, again.
The Courier is morally clear-cut and resolutely of its period, drably grey and black. Cooke has used the same designers who worked on On Chesil Beach, which was also set in 1962, as well as the same director of photography, Sean Bobbitt (Steve McQueen’s collaborator), who is given little scope here, since the framing and movement is deliberately severe.
On the plus side, this otherwise conventional spy story suddenly morphs into a different kind of movie in its final third, depicting Wynne’s imprisonment, during which he finds in himself unsuspected reserves of courage. Cumberbatch, emaciated and shaven-headed, exposes the slightly alien being he always contains and the film gears up considerably in emotional impact. This is Cumberbatch’s best espionage film, then, after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Yet, as is the convention for films based on true stories, it ends by offering a glimpse of the real people involved. This is always a risky strategy, since for every incontrovertible proof of truth-telling (in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, say, which includes a moving statement in old age by the real Desmond Doss) there are multiple let-downs – sorry realisations that the real-life protagonists lack the starriness of those portraying them.
Here, the real Greville Wynne is shown being briefly interviewed on his release from prison, saying: “I want to get back to my normal business activities as soon as I possibly can.” Suddenly he seems surprisingly sly, even smirky, the very essence of a spiv, a characteristic never quite acknowledged in the film. While the credits assure us Wynne resumed his career and died peacefully, the truth was a good deal more chequered than that. But that’s couriers for you. l
“The Courier” is in cinemas from 13 August
The Courier (12A)
dir: Dominic Cooke
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special