The Courier Blu-ray Review

Within a month of James Bond finally making it back to the big screen, we get the Digital, Blu-ray and DVD release of The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Both films share DNA with the British gentleman-spy film, but the latter is less of an explosive affair: no gadgets, stunts or pithy one-liners. It is, however, rooted in an incredible true story.

Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman who, in the early 1960’s was approached by British Intelligence to serve his country. Angus Wright plays Wynne’s contact, with Rachel Brosnahan’s CIA agent also taking a keen interest.

Greville learns from the pair that a high-ranking Russian officer, Oleg Penkovsky, had reached out to the West to offer himself as an undercover asset in the hopes of averting a nuclear war. The British and Americans need to make contact with Penkovsky, using someone whom the Russians wouldn’t suspect.

Greville, who is counting down the days to retirement and seems to be enjoying domestic bliss with wife and son, ultimately agrees to pose as Penkovsky’s business partner and act as a go-between.

Penkovsky and Greville are successful in their espionage efforts, and even form an unlikely friendship, but matters soon intensify in Cuba and the KGB start to question how certain intelligence is making it across to the other side.

Despite the compelling source material, this doesn’t feel as gripping as it should.

Yes, it’s unfair to compare this with the fantastical antics of 007 and co, but even as a real-life thriller, the film feels a little anodyne until the final stretch. Cumberbatch puts in a fine and committed performance, but his star power is undimmable and it’s hard to buy him as a relatively unassuming businessman. As a result, we never fully feel that he is in over his head or truly in jeopardy.

Merab Ninidze is solid as Penkovsky but the film, which feels like it should have been a two-hander, arguably tips towards Cumberbatch; it would have been interesting with a slightly less-recognisable actor as Greville and see more of a balance between the two performances. 

Rounding out the cast, Wright and Anton Lessor are fine as the dispassionate secret service handlers, but Brosnahan feels like she’s in a different film altogether and the great Jessie Buckley gets precious little screentime as Greville’s wife. The rest of the Russians, including Kirill Pirogov’s KGB officer, are reduced to shadowy phantoms.

On that note, Greville’s past infidelity is briefly treated as a plot complication instead of being explored as part of, say, his sense of loyalty. His motivation as a whole is mostly unexplored; he is a businessman, but flatly turns down remuneration, and we don’t really see what drives him to undertake such considerable risk.

The final act of the film is more satisfying than the rest in terms of drama and pace, but it all feels too little and too late. Overall, it’s a fascinating story but a passable film.

Conor Brennan

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October 2021