Review: In ‘The Courier,’ Cumberbatch is an everyman spy

This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from "The Courier." 

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Note: "The Courier" opens Friday only in movie theaters, which are currently operating in Dane County at 50 percent capacity, and was reviewed from a digital streaming link. The review is about the film itself, and a positive review is not intended to be encouragement or an endorsement to go see the film in theaters right now. People should make up their own minds whether they want to see a movie in theaters or wait until it arrives on video-on-demand or DVD. And if you do decide to go to the theater, please abide by all theater and public health rules to stay as safe as possible.

Greville Wynne is a great name for a spy, but the British businessman’s moniker is the only thing that suits him for the espionage world. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Courier,” Wynne is a typical middle-class salesman, a little boring and doughy, content to live a comfortable, unremarkable life sitting in his favorite chair, smoking his pipe and reading spy novels.

And yet, during the Cold War, Wynne was a crucial conduit for a Russian spy smuggling valuable intelligence to the West. His story is chronicled in “The Courier,” an engrossing and thoughtful real-life spy drama (think “Bridge of Spies” more than “No Time To Die”) that wisely emphasizes how ordinary Wynne was amid extraordinary circumstances.

The operation starts in 1960 when Oleg Penkowsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-ranking Soviet official, grows alarmed at how fast Premier Nikita “We will bury you” Khrushchev is accelerating the arms race with the United States. He reaches out to the American Embassy in Moscow with an offer to smuggle sensitive documents out of Russia, but in the middle of an arms race, American agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) knows she can’t send an American into Russia.

Instead, she and her British counterparts recruit Wynne, a salesman who does a lot of business in Eastern Europe, to expand his business into Moscow, and begin bringing packages home from Penkowsky. Wynne is terrified, but believes in serving his country.

He begins traveling back and forth behind the Iron Curtain, and the film is full of scenes of Wynne and Penkowsky exchanging documents in dark alleys, nervously looking over their shoulders. Their mission, and the secrets their share, end up sparking a friendship between the two spies. While the first half of “The Courier” is rather slow on the espionage front, the bond that develops between these two middle-aged men from vastly different worlds is quite affecting.

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The film’s narrative momentum kicks into gear in the second half, as the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up. Penkowsky wants to smuggle top secret intel on the locations of Russian missile installations in Cuba to help defuse the situation, but his superiors are getting suspicious that there's a spy in their midst. Wynne is feeling his own pressure at home, as his wife (Jessie Buckley, underused but forceful) mistakenly believes he’s having an affair.

Tom O’Connor’s screenplay balances all the competing players in this complicated drama (including a welcome turn by an uncredited Zeljko Ivanek as Donovan’s boss). And director Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”) builds tension through several quick, silent scenes, such as Wynne, fearing his office is bugged, communicating with Donovan with his son’s Magic Slate.

Cumberbatch has had a lot of success playing larger than life roles like Doctor Strange and Sherlock Holmes, but Wynne is one of his finest recent performances because he plays him as so resolutely life-size. While Cumberbatch goes through an intense physical transformation as the film goes on for reasons I won’t reveal, he never loses sight of Wynne's essential humanity. He was no superspy, but a frightened man who nonetheless persevered in doing the right thing — for his country, and for his friend.