Moscow Mule

Benedict Cumberbatch saves the world as The Courier

The Courier is one of those spy dramas without car chases, sexy women, parkour stunts across rooftops or all-powerful evil masterminds. Meaning, it comes from the John le Carré school rather than from the Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming sector. Not that basing a new movie on, say, the true-story shadowy events surrounding the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis automatically earns it a free pass—but at this late date the only grain of salt we have to swallow is the one about the inherent wickedness of whomever sits in the Kremlin.

Sixty years later that prejudice is still with us, for better or for worse. And so we’re curious to see what happens when a charmingly befuddled British international sales rep named Greville Wynne—convincingly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch—gets pulled aside by the UK foreign intelligence service MI6 and asked to do a little something extra on a business trip to Moscow.

As screenwriter Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke show us, the Americans and the British are growing increasingly alarmed at the belligerence of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov), who’s been waving nuclear missiles around and talking tough. Odd-man-out Wynne, a paunchy, middle-aged salesman with a wife and young son, impresses upon both his MI6 handler (Angus Wright) and an assertive CIA officer (Rachel Brosnahan) that he’s just the sort to travel to the USSR and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Georgian actor Merab Ninidze), a Russian military intelligence colonel with serious misgivings about his country’s warlike tendencies. Never mind that drafted secret agent Wynne is out of shape, timid and completely new at espionage—he’s perfect because no one would ever suspect him.

Cumberbatch has built a distinguished career portraying a certain character type often celebrated in classical British filmmaking—the well-meaning, unassuming, decent man who does his duty without fuss and reflects virtue on his comrades: Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Sherlock Holmes, an army officer in the trenches of WWI and various government officials including MI6 and MI5 spooks. But also the occasional wild hare: Doctor Strange, Julian Assange, a milquetoast American slave master, Dr. Frankenstein and gangster Whitey Bulger’s politician brother. At one time we might have been tempted to call Cumberbatch the ideal, all-purpose player of types, London-style. Today that prize might instead belong to Daniel Kaluuya, Chiwetel Ejiofor or John Boyega. 

But for the real-life reluctant heroics of average 1960s Englishman Greville Wynne, Cumberbatch is the ideal choice, a paragon of ordinariness, a citizen who unexpectedly rises to the occasion, an asset in every sense of the word—notably, in the gimlet-eyed view of the secret services, a useful man who does what he’s told. Cumberbatch’s Cold Warrior Wynne bravely treads in the footsteps of Tom Hanks, Richard Burton, Paul Newman, Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness, and does not besmirch their legacy, despite being sized up by his superiors as little more than a rare beetle, wriggling on a pin in their collection. The world seems to be racing toward an all-out nuclear conflagration, and someone needs to step up.

Georgian actor Ninidze has the ideal face for a Soviet-era, bureaucratic hirer-of-assassins who suddenly wakes up one day and realizes his country’s leader is treating the future of the human race as his personal toy box. Back at Langley, Brosnahan’s national security crew plays a catch-up game in the shadow of President John F. Kennedy, while strange things start happening around the globe: missile silos appear in Cuba, someone has a poison-induced heart attack (some things never change), and Wynne’s wife (Jessie Buckley) begins to suspect her husband is engaged in Russian hanky-panky. The potential end of the world is handled by director Cooke—a baker of light romantic soufflés like On Chesil Beach—as the triumph of gray, restrained men in business suits over a gang of old revolutionaries afraid of falling behind the times. Nothing especially Hitchcockian about it, but it works.

“The Courier” opens March 19 in theaters only.

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