Cinematic Releases: The Courier (2020) - Reviewed

The new historical drama thriller The Courier starring Benedict Cumberbatch represents not only the third British intelligence thriller prominently featuring the actor (the other two being Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Imitation Game), it also posits the actor recently seen in the prison drama The Mauritanian on the other side of the fence as a prisoner himself at one point.  The true story of British businessman Greville Wynne who with Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) smuggled out top secret information including but not limited to revealing the Cuban Missile crisis, theater director turned filmmaker Dominic Cooke’s The Courier is the tale of their efforts and their mutual ordeals suffered once they were discovered by the KGB.

While the film’s director is somewhat of a newcomer to the silver screen, the story and setting are familiar grounds for Cumberbatch though much is being made in the press of the actor’s weight loss for the project.  Cumberbatch has proven time and time again he’s fully committed to his art and has been a force for bringing historical dramas concerning real personages to life on the silver screen.  His latest film The Courier joins Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies as a film concerning an English-speaking figure tasked with infiltrating the Soviet Union with equal time given to dramatize the central hero’s respective ordeals. 
Visually the film is handsomely composed by Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who through McQueen’s work hasn’t been a stranger to turning his cameras on human endurances.  Unique to the piece is Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski’s evocative score.  A former understudy of the great late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, the score for The Courier is at once traditional in tone but experimental in form.  Performances across the board are strong though this is mostly Cumberbatch’s show.  That said, actor Merad Ninidze as Greville’s partner Oleg Penkovsky codenamed Ironbark gives an equally powerful performance.  As fate would have it, Ninidze also appeared in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies as a Soviet interrogator.

Yes the film is somewhat of an old fashioned historical drama programmer and I’m willing to bet Cumberbatch is likely to produce more projects like this in the future but as always the film’s heart is in the right place and Cumberbatch gives his all to the film physically as well as emotionally.    At times this can be a draining viewing experience but Cumberbatch gives the subject and film immediacy and manages to make you share with Greville’s accomplishments and subsequent ordeal.  Having seen him recently in The Mauritanian, the actor continues to cement his place in the cinematic landscape as one of its most important and gifted contributors who shows no signs of slowing down.

--Andrew Kotwicki