The Courier is a Ripping Yarn – but is so much more as well

We are so used to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch play dysfunctional geniuses that it’s a little disorientating to discover he’s more than capable of playing a man distinguished by his ordinariness. Greville Wynne, a salesman with interests in Eastern Europe, became a crucial player in the cold war of the early sixties, smuggling secrets out of Russia. Those secrets were provided by Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, played to perfection here by Merab Ninidze.

Tom O’Connor’s screenplay presents a dour world, mirrored by Sean Bobbitt’s muted colour palette, where nuclear war feels only a button push away. As the Cuban missile crisis bubbles away in the background, the two men take sightseeing trips, attend the ballet but mostly enjoy their boozy drinking sessions. Though billed as an old fashioned thriller, The Courier is actually as much about their relationship as it is secrets, the two leads presenting their increasingly close bond with empathy and authenticity.  

While the film can be enjoyed as a stiff collared, measured affair – something akin to a ripping yarn – its so much more than that. It certainly comes as something of a shock when director Dominic Cooke moves things up a notch in the final act, providing an emotionally cathartic sucker punch that reminds the viewer the story they have been watching is all too true.