Suspenseful and old-fashioned movie to devour
There's something so enticing about an old-fashioned spy thriller.
Maybe it's the trench coats or the microfiche being smuggled in the lining of clothes or just the surreptitious hand passes.
And there's plenty of spycraft in The Courier, a skilled, suspenseful and propulsive historical drama that tells the real-life story of an English businessman and the Soviet colonel who risked everything because they believed in peace.
With a cracker cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze and Rachel Brosnahan, The Courier has the benefit of its extraordinary true story to ground the action while director Dominic Cooke adeptly captures the intensity of early 1960s Cold War espionage.
Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) is a salesman who drinks too much, is a little out of shape and isn't above losing a golf game on purpose if it gets him the contract. He also happens to do business in Eastern European countries such as communist Czechoslovakia.
When Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), a contact from the Board of Trade, invites him to lunch with American Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and asks him to do business in Moscow, it doesn't take long for Greville to cotton on to who Dickie and Emily really are.
The MI6 and CIA agents believe Greville has the perfect cover because it's not a cover at all. He really is a salesman representing a raft of British manufacturers.
The spies need a man on the ground in Moscow to make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-positioned Soviet military man who has hinted at providing intel vital to the West's efforts in countering what he believes to be the threat to global stability posed by Nikita Khrushchev.
Incidentally, Khrushchev is described as "impulsive and chaotic, a man like that shouldn't have nuclear codes" - filmed more than two years ago in 2018, the characterisation has obvious Trumpian allusions.
The two men establish a relationship - you might even say friendship - with caviar lunches and trips to the Bolshoi and West End. Meanwhile, back home in London Greville's wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of his absences.
The Courier taps into the tension and paranoia of its Cold War setting with the power plays between the US and the UK, and the constant threat of discovery in the USSR. Looking over your shoulder for KGB tails becomes second nature.
The film's production design, evoking London and Moscow at that time, and costuming add to the rich look of the film, while the performances are all accomplished, especially Buckley among the supporting players.
But the heart of this film belongs to the relationship created between Cumberbatch and prolific Georgian actor Ninidze, a pairing that brings warmth to a world built on suspicion and mistrust. Ninidze's Penkovsky is shaded by a stoic faith in a better world.
The Courier highlights the gargantuan historical changes that even two men, albeit well-placed ones, can bring about in a world that can feel overwhelmingly immovable. But it means nothing if they're not characters you can invest in.
Happily, Cumberbatch and Ninidze has done exactly that with their affecting performances.
The Courier is in cinemas from Thursday, April 1
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Originally published as Suspenseful, old-fashioned movie to devour