Based on historical events, The Courier is a well acted and polished espionage thriller that fails to raise any moral ambiguities and complexities of the Cold War other than following familiar clichés and detours. Ultimately, The Courier ends up becoming a pedestrian and overly safe film that fails to triumph in terms of rich themes, deep ideas, and even underwhelms stylistically. While competently made by British theater director turned filmmaker Dominic Cook, the film feels to be trapped in the shadows of superior Cold War thrillers like Thomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepard, and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The film doesn’t even impress on a stylistic or visual level as its overwhelmed with a muted grey color pallet that doesn’t reach the artistry or craft that could have anchored the film. Which is surprising, considering the film’s cinematography Sean Babbitt is the DP who brought Steve McQueen’s film vision to life in such masterpieces as Hunger and Shame (2011). Here he doesn’t quite bring the atmosphere or artistry that is needed. The end result feels very flat and nothing feels distinctive or all that imaginative.
Interestingly enough, the film is based on rather a fascinating man with a compelling story that put his whole life at stake to secure and transfer Soviet intelligence back to the West. The film chronicles the espionage lifestyle of Greville Wynne, who I never heard of until now. Benedict Cumberpatch plays Greville, a savvy British salesman that was recruited by both the American CIA and the British MI6 to travel to the Soviet Union to transfer intelligence and information for them. He ends up meeting fellow Russian businessman Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Minidze) and they form a strong friendship together. Oleg is also a believer in democracy, a free society, and also rejects the authoritarian side of what the Soviet Union has become. This allows him to put the principles of democracy before his own country, and both men put their livelihoods on the line as their intelligence helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meanwhile both men find themselves under deep surveillance and are caught in a web between the conflict of the Soviet state and of the United States and Great Britain.
With all of this history and accuracy, nothing truly feels at stake when there actually is so much at stake. Neither on a narrative or thematic level, The Courier fails to ignite or engross. Even the human story with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) feels detached and doesn’t quite engage as much as it should. Sheila suspects her husband is possibly having an affair since he started taking random business trips to Moscow. She notices a change in his behavior where he becomes more irritable and tense. However, Sheila ends up becoming the routine suffering spouse that is shuffled mostly on the sidelines which is disappointing considering Buckley showed outstanding acting skills in last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The film’s script by Tom O’Connor offers a lot of routine plot machinations, which could work but the film lacks passion and perspective. You don’t walk away learning much about global conflict and nothing resonates on an intellectual or sophisticated level. Even Cumberbatch feels under written as O’Connor or Cooke fail to do a deep dive into his psyche. I like to recall other films that did a more effective job than this like Spielberg’s Munich for instance, that masterful film explored how the external conflict was just a precursor to the inner torment. This film plays it safe and never quite reaches those complex emotional depths.
Cumbertach’s performance here is solid, but the lack of emotional range doesn’t quite match his torment in The Imitation Game–which was also a Cold War thriller that was more layered and involving. As Wynee, we see his deterioration from the stress, but the anxiety never reaches a level of vulnerability. The role and performance feels more mechanical, contrary to Nindize brings some conflicting tones to the role. Rachel Broshnahan on the other hand is one of the most fascinating and convincing characters in the film as she plays role as the American agent who recruits Wynne. You almost wish she was the main character of the story because she draws you with each scene she is in, something Cumberbatch fails to do.
What could have been passionate and immense, ends up feeling disregarded. Even politically the film fails to really take a stand. It’s really just a disconnected journey about a man who gets lured into espionage and it fails to be measured or bold. Sadly, the end result is a very lethargic and dull film that feels more boring than spellbinding.