Benedict Cumberbatch’s many fans will be pleased with the new movie “The Courier.” Sometimes actors need to take roles because they give them chances to show what they can do. This Cold War drama not only required the oddly named one to be shaved almost bald and to lose some weight, but it also depends on his exertions to keep its not particularly active story line alive.
The rest of the cast also deserves credit. All amusing and believable in their parts are Rachel Brosnahan, as a CIA agent, Jessie Buckley, playing the wife of Cumberbatch’s Grenville Wynne, and especially Merab Nindze, who gives us high-ranking Communist party member Penkovsky. And the film demonstrates director Dominic Cooke’s skill with actors.
Wynne is asked by British government intelligence to take up some commercial business in Communist Russia in 1960. That way he will be able to meet with war hero Penkovsky who is worried that the Khrushchev government may start a nuclear — maybe at that time an “atomic” — war.
Penkovsky will give Wynne Soviet secrets. The British and American governments promise to give Penkovsky asylum if his information-passing is discovered by the Russians. You already know how far people can trust the government to keep its promises.
For almost two years, though, Penkovsky and Wynne have a lot of success taking intelligence information to the West. The two men become friends. So when Soviet government agents figure out who has access to the information they see has been smuggled out to Washington, Wynne is willing to go back one more time to help his buddy and his family sneak into Finland.
There is some suspense during this stretch of the story. And some gut wrenching later, in an almost dangling denouement. But most of the time the movie is mostly about its gray settings — particularly the Russian ones — and about the men’s growing friendship. It is interesting. But it isn’t exciting.
The film’s story is “based on true events.” I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the stare down between Khrushchev and President Kennedy.
So the world events of the time were not news to me. Still one wonders if Cumberbatch’s mostly younger following will find the circumstances surprising.
You know, we don’t seem to care much for history. Consider the late coronavirus to-do. Surely the first thing all of us should have done was to look at recent history for parallel instances of flu outbreaks. I heard the Spanish Flu of 1918 referred to, but not the China H-N flu of 1957 or the Hong Kong outbreak of 1968. These more recent instances would have helped us foresee what was to come, including the quick development of inoculations.
Those who see “The Courier” will perhaps have a better notion of what the world was like in 1960, when communists controlled much of Europe and Asia, mass killer Stalin was a fresh memory, and Mao was still around and getting the horrifying Cultural Revolution ready. But these younger moviegoers may also leave the theater with an idea of what is likely to happen in Cumberbatch’s career.
He can go on playing super heroes, including Sherlock Holmes, and making big Hollywood money.
But from here on out he will always be thought of as a real movie actor, someone who can take on a serious part in a serious movie and who will make himself ugly to advance a serious story.
He deserves that kind of status.
I’m not sure older viewers will need to confirm it by going to the theater to see this only just entertaining little picture.