Timid and uninspired directing bog down a fascinating true spy story
Cold War spy thrillers have been pushed into a certain area of tone and structure. This is largely thanks to John Le Carré’s successful novels; the realism and subtlety imbued in them (and their later adaptations) suits the quiet and indirect battles that the Soviets and Americans waged. This demands a sense of intelligent plot-threading for any spy-film’s writer, to try and keep viewers guessing, and blur moral and ethical lines.
The Courier (2021) is a true story set in 1960 Europe, with the arms race between the USA and USSR nearing its peak. A high ranking Soviet official, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides to make contact with the Americans to give them a leg-up in stopping a potential conflict. The CIA, impersonated by agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), decide to partner up with MI6, and recruit an unassuming businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to serve as their contact person who will take information from Penkovsky in Moscow, and bring it back to agents in London.
Dominic Cooke is primarily a theater director, whose only made one previous feature film, the surprisingly dull On Chesil Beach (2017). While that film dealt with the quiet ruminations of a recently married couple on their honeymoon, Cooke is given exciting material in The Courier. However, the spy genre doesn’t seem to suit Cooke either, as he is incapable of crafting an air of mistrust or complexity. The exposition dumps as per Tom O’Connor’s script can be so blunt and obvious, that it is much of the dialogue in the first third of the film. The Courier also falls into a trap that I thought Western films had long escaped. Of exaggeratedly demonizing the Soviets. One would think that due to contemporary history and events, these perspectives of a black-and-white world were long gone. Nevertheless they are injected in The Courier ridiculously framing the world as one of evil of the Soviets and a pure West. This perspective waters down the intricacies that other spy films have, where nations lose the tags of “good” and “bad” and protagonists have to navigate a world of dangerous self-interest.
Wynne’s story is fascinating, and yet O’Connor chooses to focus his script on the dullest aspects of his actual spy work, that of simply flying to and from Moscow with packages under his arm. It is only in the last act, when things turned hairy for Wynne, that there is some element of thrills to be had. Even then, however, the excitement doesn’t pay off, because Cooke and O’Connor haven’t been able to decide what the core of their story is. Placing Wynne as a protagonist with a particular boring role to fulfill makes viewers’ eyes wander to supporting characters with much more intriguing arcs, such as Donovan, who has navigate the sexism of the 1960s espionage world, or Penkovsky and his risks of betraying his country from the inner circle.
Cooke and O’Connor’s lack of focus leads to an emotionally cold and politically distant story. This leaves its actors at the mercy of viewers, and as such we get a disparate set of performances. Cumberbatch plays Wynne with a bumbling attitude that seems more suited to a cheeky blockbuster than the overly serious The Courier. Meanwhile Jesse Buckley, as Wynne’s wife Sheila, is playing an intense family drama that is barely given two scenes. The likes of Brosnahan and Ninidze, do their best to give the film and its characters an air of covert and witty grand plans, and yet their best efforts can’t hide the rather barebones and blocky script.
In the end, The Courier is a disappointment. Cooke is incapable of sprucing up excitement or emotion from the story, and the thrills and questions that could have been prodded are left by the wayside. The true story had the appropriate stakes, twists, and tragedy to make for a gripping film, yet creative indecision and timidity seems to have bogged it down obtusely.