The Courier is a slow-burning but intriguing espionage thriller with a strong flavor of John le Carré. It is based on the true story of Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Soviet officer, and his surprising partnership with British businessman Greville Wynne, who helped him to smuggle top-secret information about nuclear missiles in Cuba to the British and Americans.
Benedict Cumberbatch excels as Wynne, a charming but seedy salesman with a Terry-Thomas mustache and a dress sense resembling that of old Grandstand presenter Frank Bough.
It is the early 60s and Wynne is relatively happily married to Sheila (Jessie Buckley). He can hold his alcohol and knows how to charm potential clients, either with his deferential patter or by letting them beat him on the golf course. As for secret work, his only experience in this field is trying (and failing) to keep his wife from finding out about an old affair.
The brilliance of Cumberbatch’s performance lies in the way he conveys both Wynne’s venality and his idealism. He is an opportunist with an eye for the main chance but Penkovsky’s courage rubs off on him.
This may be a spy movie but it is a long way removed from the world of James Bond. Rather than sex, cars, and gadgets, it shows Wynne passing on his secret information by hiding messages in corners of public lavatories.
Late on, the tone changes dramatically. The film becomes far harsher and darker. The wry humor and sardonic observation of the earlier scenes are forgotten as the protagonists face real dangers.
Some of the storytelling might be on the contrived side but The Courier ranks with Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies as one of the subtlest and most insightful spy movies of recent years.