Benedict Cumberbatch Becomes ‘The Courier’ in Dominic Cooke’s Elegant Cold War Thriller

A different kind of friendship forms in the shadows of “The Courier,” an elegant Cold War thriller that covers familiar territory with some refined acting. Familiar but not rehashed, the plot is based on real events and puts broader political arguments in the background. In a larger sense it’s about lives that come together under intense circumstances, and how they can be swept up by historical forces. It is the mix of the personal and historical that attracted director Dominic Cooke to the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman who was utilized by MI6 and the CIA to be a go-between with a Soviet agent. “I read the script before knowing the true story,” Cooke told Entertainment Voice, “I’ve always been fascinated by the Cold War. I went to Soviet Russia on a school trip. I’ve always been interested in the whole crazy and sort of noble idea that went so badly wrong in the Soviet project. I loved the combination of all that with this tender story of friendship and loyalty.”

The story opens in the early ‘60s as the Cold War heats up and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s war of words with the U.S. grows more incendiary, as well as the nuclear race between both superpowers. Watching his superiors’ behavior with dismay is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), an official who fears the country’s rulers are moving closer to doing something reckless that could mean war. He reaches out to England and the U.S. as an informant. Two western officials, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of MI6 and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) of the CIA, approach Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) with the offer of dabbling in the intelligence world. For Wynne there’s a hint of excitement now to his mundane, homely life with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and young son Andrew (Keir Hills). He enters the USSR under the cover of doing business but in reality becomes the information bridge between Penkovsky and his handlers. The two men soon strike a genuine friendship, which will be severely tested the closer the world comes to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Cooke has always been a director of atmosphere in shows like “The Hollow Crown” and an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach.” In “The Courier,” he combines that sense of environment with a story both suspenseful but personal. Wynne is not a spy prop but a man flirting with the suspense of danger, even if on the surface he’s a homebody. “It’s partly a story of a midlife crisis (laughs),” said Cooke, “It’s about a guy living a discontented life, as so many people do at that age, and suddenly he’s plunged into this situation where he discovers something new in himself. I loved that because it gives the story real drama juxtaposed with all the spy stuff.” Cumberbatch, no stranger to period thrillers, captures Wynne as an honest but focused man. He’s a bit naïve at first about what espionage entails, but learns fast. Like a John Le Carre novel, there are moments where intimacy mingles with paranoia. Wynne and Penkovsky will share a walk down a cold Moscow street but even if there is no one in sight, they have to be ever so careful about what is being said in the open. They can both relate to each other as two professional, married men, but with a sense of duty based more on morals than nationalism. 

In the era of “The Courier,” Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy dominate the TV screens, but these are the individual lives we rarely learn about until years after the fact. “We ‘dove in,’ to use the American term, very deeply,” said Cooke about the research that went into Wynne and Penkovsky’s operation, “I did a lot of research. But a lot of the information can be really unreliable, which is interesting in itself. The CIA released all their papers on this story in the mid-‘90s, and there’s a lot in there. I read everything, watched everything. When you’re telling a story drawn from real life you have this dilemma where you have to honor the people as they really were, but also serve the drama. You gotta compress like crazy, because this all took place over seven years. I didn’t speak to that many people because there weren’t that many people who knew them. So what you have to do is honor the essence of who these people were and the events. You have to do that.”

Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze have a different sort of chemistry on screen which is based on a feeling of real respect. They get to know each other by having to build a genuine trust, aware that one could turn in the other. When Wynne meets Penkovsky’s family he can’t even come in for a meal in their home. “I was lucky in that the two actors really did connect,” said Cooke, “I try not to work with people who are selfish (laughs). I feel you can get farther with people who do get that it’s about relationships. Both these guys are people who want to connect. I always try to do some rehearsal, which I like because I come from a theater background, so I notice that when you really work out every beat in a scene and how it’s supposed to be done, then it comes out so much better in the movie. There were some brilliant clues in the facts about who these two people are. But by pure chance Benedict and Merab were like a ying and yang. It was intensified by the secrecy, almost like a romance, like a covert romance. It has that sort of charge.” Rachel Brosnahan of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fame and Angus Wright are more standard in their roles, serving more as human stand-ins for their respective intelligence agencies. Jessie Buckley is much more engaging as Wynne’s wife, who feels uneasy about his constant traveling to Moscow, in particular because of a past infidelity, but has no way of knowing the truth until events force his handlers to reveal it to her.

“The Courier” lands as new cold wars are brewing between the world’s major powers. The Soviet Union may be gone but today new geopolitical rivalries with Russia and China dominate the headlines. For Cooke this is why a story of people whose lives are caught up in such history is important to tell. “We’re in a very paranoid time in all sorts of ways,” said Cooke, “I never imagined when I was growing up that the Soviet Union would fall. But when it did it was incredible, it was extraordinary what happened in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. The world had been so divided between these two poles. But today we have new fears about Putin and how he used to be a KGB guy. It’s because the structures haven’t been dismantled in Russia, even if the economic ideology has changed. You have to go through various stages, I think. The structures in Russia weren’t thoroughly dismantled. The education system and legal system remained the same. But we see in the film how people do want change and are capable of taking risks for a greater good. It’s an example for us of what individuals can do to start change.”

The Courier” releases March 19 in select theaters.