The Courier successfully whittles a very large story down to size, focusing mostly on the interpersonal relationship between Greville and said colonel, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Cumberbatch and Georgian actor Ninidze create a bond that charges the film with emotion, playing two family men who just want to make sure their wives and children aren’t obliterated by blustering brutes playing at war.Ninidze, sadly, is removed somewhat from the third act of The Courier, for good reason (yet, it still robs the film of some weight in the final lap), but Cumberbatch is able to shine throughout as Greville, a humble citizen who finds himself more instilled with pride and heroism as his trips to the Soviet Union grow more frequent. Detrimentally so, of course, given Grevile’s fate, but it’s still an exciting transformation to experience and Cumberbatch is dynamite here.
Cold War-era espionage, with its high stakes and simple no-frills tech, is a playground for paranoia and intrigue. It can be fascinating to look at the lengths we once had to go to obtain, and transport, information in the name of saving the world, and The Courier uses this backdrop to pressure cooker perfection. With little more than patience, diligence, and preparedness, Greville and Oleg are able to shuffle enough classified intel out of a country, where anyone at any time could be eyes for the enemy, and aid in the miraculous diffusion of a world on the brink.
Cumberbatch’s Greville, based on the real-life Greville Wynne, is a man who, while increasingly noble, becomes addicted to the thrill of spycraft. It’s a flaw, but never one that overshadows the ultimate good he’s doing. You can feel his craving for the craft growing after each winning mission and Cumberbatch cooly casts a spell here where you root for Greville while he sheds his soused, glad-handing ways for a new life as a man where his old personality becomes merely a cover.Unfortunately, Greville, as an ordinary citizen, has things to lose. Tenured spies know better than to have families waiting back home but Greville reluctantly enters the game with a wife, Sheila (Fargo’s Jessie Buckley), and a son. Even if this weren’t all based on true events, narratively it signals doom.
From a more intimate perspective though, it allows Greville and Oleg, both with everything on the line, to more easily sync their practices and align their principles. Ninidze is also wonderful here, as Oleg, though, as mentioned, the third act goes a bit sideways emotionally and a big part of that is because Ninidze is only used sparingly despite being established as the film’s secondary main character.