Conceived without the benefit of imagination, The Courier is a microwaved and nutrient-free copy of similar Cold War spy dramas, tinny with the shine of its shrinkwrap packaging. Planting itself somewhere between le Carré, Mike Leigh domestic drama, and a burlap sack, the film is confused in its inspirations, chasing other films of more precise ambitions. The resulting hodgepodge of derivative influences flattens the tension, which isn’t aided by an even flatter central performance. But what the film fails to understand about the genre its chasing is that they all came from a unique point of view; it struggles so hard to follow in the Cold War genre’s footsteps that it stumbles to find a path of its own, even as it navigates an untold corner of history. The Courier unfortunately makes the blanched achievement of telling the story of a man you have never heard of before while being a movie that you have.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, an ordinary British salesman recruited by MI6 because of his very ordinariness. He is to meet with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to transfer intelligence in plain sight, under the guise of ordinary business expansion removed from international politics. Over time and with thousands of documents transferred in the process, Wynne is captured and imprisoned by the KGB. His and Penkovsky’s efforts are credited with securing intelligence that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their rescue grounds the film’s back half.
But The Courier’s stakes never rise to a level of intensity that vital history would demand, nor to the intimate level of the more personal story the film focuses on for longer stretches. The human story at the film’s core is Wynne’s relationship to his long-aggrieved wife Sheila, played by Jessie Buckley, left unawares of her husband’s activities and blocked out by his increasingly interiorized mental state before capture. However, Sheila is drawn in the most reductive of terms to cliched suffering, nagging spouse, without much more to understand her by. A shame even moreso unfortunate with such a quality actress at the reigns; one imagines she had better things to do than this after her towering turns in Wild Rose and I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The film is overcast in greys, both stylistically and figuratively, pulling from the vibes of other films with more distinct narrative sensibilities. Working from Tom O’Connor’s script, director Dominic Cooke lacks a unique perspective to turn the dial on the drama, or to lend a prescient eye onto the political machinations of the semi-recent past. With that missing, there’s not much to be learned from The Courier – not about global conflict and even less about its man. Its spy aesthetics are too familiar, its character study too surface.
On top of the film’s paint-by-numbers approach, Cumberbatch’s performance is generic even by his own performance yardstick, bringing to question why he has been handed so many headlining roles without the charisma to bolster them. As Wynne, he puffs up his upper lip and stares vaguely into the middle distance with a veil of put-upon false anxiety, bluntly trying to conjure our empathy rather than earn it through vulnerability. Stodginess has become his typecast and here he tries to actually perform it. He is neither compelling nor unexpected, offering a mechanic approximation of an everyman that is too rehearsed to feel real. Opposite, Ninidze is thankfully natural and interesting to watch, as is Rachel Brosnahan as an American agent.
If there was anything out of the ordinary that The Courier could have been, it would be a character study of a man reluctant to involve himself in politics until circumstance demanded his conviction. But Cumberbatch’s flat miscasting stands the cornerstone of lazy approaches that the film contains. The film bores, but also frustrates in the obvious ways it could have been passable.