Being a good spy is a bit like being in a rom-com about a forbidden romance. It’s all furtive glances, stolen moments, and thin excuses for brief contact. The only real difference is that the participants in a forbidden romance probably aren’t risking being executed by the state if they’re caught. This is perhaps the most interesting way to think about The Courier, a British spy drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s mostly a plain thriller, but in its focus on espionage as relationship-driven work, it’s still entertaining.
The comparison to rom-coms isn’t meant to be glib: The Courier is very much about a spy and his target taking a risk on being vulnerable with each other. And while the relationship isn’t romantic, the visual language of intimacy is what makes them compelling to watch, because if viewers don’t care about them trusting each other, The Courier would quickly become a very boring film.
Based on a true story, the film takes place in the early 1960s and follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a glad-handing British salesman recruited by MI6 to help flip a Russian asset. He’s told that his regular business travels make him the perfect person to travel to Moscow and connect with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet agent who has grown fearful of the KGB’s direction under Nikita Khrushchev, and may be willing to share intelligence. With a little convincing from Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), a CIA agent working with MI6 as the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up, Greville is sold on the lie that the assignment carries minimal risk — all he has to do is do business as usual, while dropping off a few packages.
The Courier is the platonic ideal of a drama based on a true story. It’s an obscure footnote in a well-known event, a story that can attribute a pivotal turning point in history to the actions of one or two people, or at least fudge it enough so that feels true. Greville, according to the film, ultimately provides intel that’s instrumental in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. With stakes of such import, director Dominic Cooke is free to go small in his storytelling, focusing squarely on Greville and Oleg.
With the oppressive backdrop of Soviet Russia, their friendship isn’t an easy one to strike up, so their relationship is established with the flirtations of businessmen: Greville accompanying Oleg to prestigious ballet shows and theater productions, the two men sharing copious amounts of alcohol while carousing about town, all as an excuse to get close enough to make the necessary exchanges. Cooke doesn’t seem interested in spy fiction as an exercise in exploring male intimacy, but with a little less pretension, The Courier could easily be one.
Protagonist Greville Wynne is also a nice shift for Cumberbatch, whose most famous characters tend to be unpleasant geniuses like Sherlock Holmes, Patrick Melrose, or Stephen Strange. In The Courier, Greville is just some guy with a mustache who, more than anything, wants people to like him. He’s surprisingly sympathetic in the role, to the point where it might even undermine the film slightly: He’s so obviously and easily exploited by his spy handlers that it’s hard not to be a little angry on his behalf. Yet neither Cooke’s direction nor Tom O’Connor’s script seem interested in delving into this much.
The Courier tells its spy story with too light a touch to really sustain any serious consideration. It doesn’t have the dispassionate psychodrama of John Le Carré adaptations like Little Drummer Girl, nor is it interested in espionage for its intrigue or political dimensions. The film frames Greville’s career in accidental spycraft as an inspirational story, a tale of how two men with conviction can change the world. It’s a stance at odds with a lot of Cooke’s own film, which portrays cynical people in power exerting pressure on a private citizen to do their dirty work, but it’s all cast in the soft lighting and air of everyday heroism familiar to any work about Great Men.
This approach sours if you consider the other half of The Courier’s central relationship. Like the real-life versions of Greville and Oleg, the cinematic ones pay steep and notably different prices for their work. Maybe in some small way, as the film argues, they did prevent nuclear armageddon. But it’s hard to find inspiration in their story. In real-world spy stories, there are rarely any heroes.
The Courier opens in theaters on March 19th. Before visiting a theater, Polygon recommends reading our guide to local theaters and safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.