Directed By Dominic Cooke
Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan
The Plot – A true-life spy thriller, the story of an unassuming British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. At the behest of the UK’s MI-6 and a CIA operative (Brosnahan), he forms a covert, dangerous partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) in an effort to provide crucial intelligence needed to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong adult language, and smoking throughout
– Superbly acted. This is a gifted ensemble that constantly fights for the captivation of the audience, all the while continuously elevating the material, which doesn’t reach half the depths of its pivotal pawns. This starts with Cumberbatch, whose investment in dedication to articulating the particular quirks and nuances of the real life Greville are only surpassed by his bodily commitment to transform before our very eyes. I haven’t seen this level of malnutrition since Christian Bale in “The Machinist”, and even in a career full of unique characters and complex challenges, his work here might be my favorite of his career. In addition to Benedict, Ninidze casts a believably cryptic shadow over the character of Oleg, a man who, like Greville, we come to meet and learn about with each passing instance, fueling speculation for the curiosity that constantly overtakes us with his movements. Finally, the females are just as up for the task as the starring male duo, with Brosnahan often being the brains behind the operation, as well as Jesse Buckley taking over the third act with an emotional registry that really connected to the audience in terms of themes dealing with longing and loss.
– Subtle style. It is commonplace in spy thrillers to harvest an aesthetic presentation that matches the slick atmosphere illustrated in the mental chess game throughout, and while Cooke does establish an identity of its own, it’s one that should be appreciated for its reservation towards other aspects of the film. This is very much a film that values substance above style, but even in doing so does grant us several examples of challenging shot compositions and a translation for character movements that really goes a long way in outlining the elevation in atmosphere that constantly surrounds us. Such an example is in the consistency between the first and third acts, where the film’s cinematography matures from a basic still frame serenity to play towards the calm before the storm, and then devastates it all with a claustrophobia during the third act that amplifies the anxiety that these characters tell us about, but never show us until it’s made visually apparent. Nothing is ever overwhelming to the point it feels obvious or unnecessary to the integrity of the story, only occasionally dabbling in the unnerving boundaries set by creative motivations that feel unusual because they are anything but consistent along the way.
– Double life. One element that spy films always talk about, but rarely capitalize on is the characterization in a protagonist whose boundaries between lives becomes obscured with more time taken from one and donated to the other. That isn’t the case with Wynne, here, as about halfway through the film we are presented this uncanny price tag that comes with such a decision, and what it’s slowly costing him along the way in his crumbling family foundation. Because of such, Cumberbatch often feels like he’s playing two characters for the price of one, all the while maintaining that diminishing line of connection that links both sides respectively, but one that doesn’t feel recognizable to the other when in contrast. It proves that Wynne had to give up a lot when his country came calling for him, but beyond that plays into an internal struggle for the character that is most compelling during moments of conflict with no shortage of stakes for him constantly hanging in the balance.
– Two for the world. You always hear how anyone has the power to make significant changes on a grander scale, but “The Courier” is a film that vividly articulates such a concept, with a friendship between two men from entirely different worlds that is romantic without any of the meaning in definition. Over the course of 106 minutes of screen time, we are given time to watch their emerging friendship grow as something far beyond an opportunistic deal for the sake of delaying inevitability, and presenting realistic monumental changes in the form of dictated fate that wouldn’t have been the same without them. The film takes ample time to flesh out this bond between them, complete with family dinners and emotional connections during opera engagements, which terrifically break a stigma within toxic masculinity defining the merits of a man as being one single solitary thing that society, not them, defines. It takes a relationship so intimately condensed, and translates it on a spectrum that has legitimate global effects and consequences, altering the course of history because these two became the change that they wished to see in the world. What an inspiring concept.
– Creative exposition. Because this is a film that centers around a friendship, and what powerful circumstances arose between two people, the scope for the world outside of them isn’t required to fully flesh out their narrative. However, the film does incorporate an abundance of grainy historical footage between transitions that does colorfully do the trick in moving the world and story that surrounds Wynne and Penkovsky forward at all times. This not only balances a truthfully factual approach to the material that serves the memory of the real life figures well, but also plays further into the every small and intimate movement having bigger consequences on a worldwide stage. None of the transitions or montages ever feel heavy-handed or predictable when compared to the beats of the story, despite this being a story that is more than sixty years old, and the colorless hue of their inclusion only further plays coherently into the timely production, which is constantly evident in every framed shot.
– Seamless production design. As to where the cinematography for the movie is respectively reserved for the moments it can be appreciated spontaneously, the collection of wardrobe, set designs, and color correction for the film that fluently channeled the Soviet Union at the apex of their power. The intentionally bland color design not only plays into the ominous atmosphere that feels evident in the many conversations between intelligence on both sides, but also casts distinction to the particular place in time that can be evidently defined in a grainy photograph or film that is seen in current day. As for the costume designs, I loved the color coordination between respective couples, as well as the barrage of headwear that round out a collection of three-piece suits and geometric shifts that were all the fashion craze for the time period.
– Thrilling absence. For a movie that is marketed as a spy thriller, the down time and overall lack of urgency in this story quite often overtook the creative direction, underselling the vulnerabilities in ways that never makes the paranoia interpretable to us the audience. Part of this deals with some strange editing decisions along the way, which not only undercut the momentum of scenes being built consistently as one fluid motion, but the other is definitely in the inferior first half of the movie, which takes a bit too much time setting up the conflict from within this narrative. The third act is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie for me, but by that time audience investment may be diminishing at the prospect of investing into a spy thriller with little or no evident danger to subdue their patience. It tells what it constantly needs to show us, often feeling like a movie where the most defining parts are left on the editing room floor.
– Flat score. It’s rare that I get an occasion where the music to a film plays such a condemning hand in my final grade, but the work from composer Abel Korzeniowski added far too many moments of unintentional levity between these sequences that should feel suffocating for the impending doom that constantly follows our duo of protagonists. It often feels like a wet blanket in audio and creative capacities, conjuring up a meandering experience that is virtually inescapable during scenes that require deep focus in the context of the scene. Abel’s compositions are a bit derivative in their transitioning from one track to the next, but I feel like they would work in an entirely different tonal film, far from the resonance of nuclear warfare. It simply didn’t fit for what the scenes needed, and often left me disconnected to the internal voice within the characters that music is used to properly channel.
– Uneven pacing. Most of the problem during that faulty first half that I previously mentioned comes in the form of occasionally arduous pacing that feels like it pushes this movie’s run time far beyond the two hour mark. This problem stems as a result of sloppily rushed sequencing, which rarely gives audience a chance to soak in the magnitude of what just materialized in the previous scene. This element of diminishing production makes the movie feel like it would be better suited for on-demand at home, if even just for how the ability to pause and interpret things for as long as you want could help clarify the story to a wider audience appeal. There was never a time when I was truly confused during the film, but the dialogue-driven diatribes do overly complicate the execution of reveals that should be routine in their documentation, occasionally convoluting a story that isn’t always the easiest to fully invest in.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-