It’s been said many times that truth is stranger than fiction. That’s certainly the case with the story of Greville Wynne, the British businessman who was recruited by MI6 at the height of the Cold War. Wynne’s role was to courier top-secret information to London from Soviet military intelligence (GRU) colonel-turned-mole Oleg Penkovsky. It is recounted (with literary license) in the aptly-titled film, THE COURIER.
If you’re not familiar with Wynne, welcome to the club. I didn’t know about him either until I watched this film. In late 1960, Wynne (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, THE MAURITANIAN; 1917; the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise; THE CURRENT WAR; THE IMITATION GAME; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) is approached by MI6 officer Dickie Franks (Angus Wright, OFFICIAL SECRETS; MALEFICENT) and CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan, I’M YOUR WOMAN; SPIES IN DISGUISE; TV’s THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL) to make a sales trip to Moscow where he would make contact with Penkovsky (Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, TOM CLANCY’S WITHOUT REMORSE; NOWHERE IN AFRICA), who had already reached out to the West with offers to spy for them. Over the course of the next two years, Wynne smuggles out crucial intelligence that helps the West deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meanwhile at home, Wynne’s frequent trips to Moscow cause a rift with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS; DOLITTLE; JUDY), who wants answers that he cannot give.
THE COURIER has all the makings of a Le Carré spy thriller but doesn’t quite hit it out of the ballpark. A solid triple, yes, but not a homer. Director Dominic Cooke, in his second film, though he has 30 years of experience directing on the British stage, brings out the best of his actors here, who make the most of a rather formulaic screenplay that doesn’t ratchet the tension up as much as it needed to be. After all, the world was closer to nuclear Armageddon than it ever had been. The film really gets interesting when Wynne and Penkovsky get caught (that’s not really a spoiler), but Cooke zooms through that part of the story in just a matter of minutes leaving the post-script to newsreel footage of the real Wynne. I can respect that Cooke didn’t devolve the film into torture porn but a few more scenes of what Wynne had to endure while in a Soviet jail wouldn’t have hurt.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 under the title IRONBARK, which was Penkovsky’s code name. Under the new name THE COURIER, the film was set to have a commercial release in the US last August but got pushed out to October because of the pandemic. It got delayed again until March when it was released worldwide.
THE COURIER opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas on Thursday (May 27th). It’s pretty good so I recommend you check it out. If you’re watching it online, don’t confuse it with another film of the same name from 2019 starring Gary Oldman. That one’s a dog.
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