Review: Cold War spy thriller ‘The Courier’ eventually snaps into something more

Merab Ninidze, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie "The Courier."
(Liam Daniel / Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions)

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Dominic Cooke’s 1960s-set spy thriller “The Courier” unfolds as expected until it doesn’t. Based on the true story of British businessman Greville Wynne and the daring acts of espionage he undertook during the Cold War, the film is a swift, if perfunctory rendition of midcentury spy movie tropes. The color palette? Desaturated. The villains? One-dimensional. But then, it zigs when it might zag (unless you’re already familiar with Wynne’s life story), and “The Courier” becomes something much more dark, complex and moving.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Wynne, an almost happy-go-lucky English businessman. He cheerily loses at golf as a part of his dealmaking, and he is cozily married to Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and father to Andrew (Keir Hills). When an acquaintance (Angus Wright) invites him to lunch with an American “consultant” (Rachel Brosnahan, in a wig and demeanor that can be described only as Tracy Flick-ish), the two gently press him into “service” for Great Britain, and he’s shocked. “I can’t believe I’m having lunch with spies,” Wynne sputters.

Rachel Brosnahan in the movie "The Courier."
(Liam Daniel / Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions)

His mission, should he choose to accept it (not that there’s much of a choice) is to travel to Moscow under the guise of business to collect images from Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-ranking Soviet officer who has grown wary of Nikita Khrushchev’s (Vladimir Chuprikov) threats of nuclear war. He’s willing to betray his country to save his family, and the world, risking a surely brutal death if he’s caught.

The first two-thirds of the film is your standard-issue spy thriller. It’s hard to tell if it’s the script by Tom O’Connor, or the edit, but the story feels overly condensed, yet baggy. Much of the action and exposition unfolds in montage, relying on genre-familiar story beats. Cumberbatch plays Wynne as both a quick study and a bit of a pushover; a few well-placed words about nuclear bombs are enough to get him on the plane to Moscow. But Wynne and Penkovsky seem to actually enjoy one another’s company, whether weeping at “Swan Lake” or doing the twist to the Chubby Checker hit in a London nightclub. They bond over love for their families and are pressed into this strange situation by their all-consuming desire to keep them safe.

Ninidze slowly emerges as the heart and soul of “The Courier.” He plays Penkovsky as a warm, charming, cultured man who cares deeply for those he keeps close, including Wynne. Penkovsky explains to young Andrew over dinner that it’s not the people of these countries who hate each other but the politicians, and “The Courier” prioritizes the very specific human connection between Penkovsky and Wynne, almost to the detriment of capturing the full tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis that comes to a boil.

The drab gray color scheme of “The Courier” might be genre-appropriate, but it’s profoundly depressing to look at, as people and buildings and streets all blend into one muddy hue. The aesthetic sharpens into something stark and hellish as the story takes a turn into the dehumanizing realities of the Soviet regime. It’s in these last moments of “The Courier” that things finally snap into place, crystallizing the message that individuals might grasp some power within the complicated machinery of politics.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘The Courier’

Rated: PG-13, for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday in general release