'The Courier' is a masterful Cold War thriller

Courtesy PhotoMerab Ninidze, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch star in 'The Courier.'

A lot of period spy thrillers tend to miss the “cold” part of the Cold War in favor of something a little spicier. They make a lot of the events of that long and often strange era feel sexier, more brutal, and more overtly violent than they actually were, in part because much of the real work of that era was simply done by people in suits poring over files late into the night. 

It’s an understandable impulse, because people in suits poring over files isn’t necessarily cinematic. With the right story, though, a film about the more mundane elements of Cold War spycraft and how it often had dramatic implications for the future of the world can be something truly compelling. Dominic Cooke’s “The Courier” has found the right story, and the result is a beautifully orchestrated period drama.

The courier of the title is Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an English businessman who is drafted by members of MI6 and the CIA for what is, at first, supposed to be a very low-risk assignment. It seems a Soviet war hero turned government official named Oleg Peknovsky (Merab Ninidze) is eager to pass state secrets along to the West to stave of rising nuclear tensions, but because of his position in the U.S.S.S., he can’t simply meet with other government agents. A civilian has to be the one to carry the information, and Wynne’s efforts to expand his business into Eastern Europe offer the perfect cover. What begins as a simple meeting soon grows into a real relationship, as Wynne realizes the gravity of what he’s doing amid the emerging Cuban missile crisis, and develops a kinship with a man from the other side of the continent who once seemed worlds away.

What struck me immediately about this film is just how patient Cooke, Cumberbatch, Ninidze, and everyone else involved was willing to be with their storytelling. Even the most straightforward of “based on a true story” narratives get some level of embellishment, and when we’re talking about spy movies that usually means no small amount of cloak and dagger posturing, but “The Courier” has the confidence to withhold that in favor of a more measured, more human story. There’s no sense here that the film has something to prove, that it needs to bite off bigger chunks of the Cold War narrative in order to prove its point, because we are after all ultimately talking about the fate of human civilization and how it may well have rested in the hands of a couple of well-meaning men in overcoats here. The stakes will come if we let them. Cooke knows that, and so he fills his frame with precise, beautifully orchestrated shots and delicate performances, letting the tension build around them, so that when the spycraft of it all finally does kick in, we not only understand where the characters stand, but we care about them.

This, of course, is helped along by two wonderfully vulnerable and subtle lead performances from Cumberbatch and Ninidze. Cumberbatch, perhaps best known at this point for playing gifted but arrogant men in everything from period dramas to superhero films, has the courage to make himself just a little bit boring as Greville Wynne, a man much more interested in contracts than espionage and much more devoted to the bottom line than the fate of the world. His slow, genuinely unnerving evolution over the course of the film as Cooke ratchets up the tension forms the backbone of the narrative, but even that isn’t the standout of the film for me. No, that honor goes to Ninidze, who plays the cold efficiency of Soviet governance and the troubled passion of a patriot with an eye on the greater good with equal fervor and grace. It’s a brilliant performance, and together these two actors create something truly special that pays off in the final act in surprisingly emotional ways.

“The Courier” is not the flashiest spy thriller you’ll ever see, but it is a masterclass in knowing the personal stakes of your story and exploiting them to the highest possible degree. It’s a beautifully crafted, expertly paced, and deeply effective drama that reminds us how often big things happen on a small scale.

‘The Courier’ is available on-demand this Friday. 

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