As literature and media consumers, we’re accustomed to reading stories that fit neatly into one of a few familiar narrative templates. Regardless of genre, even the most unique original screenplays can be reduced down to a basic plot formula that we’ve already encountered a million times (according to author Christopher Booker, there are in fact 7 basic plots, hence the title of his 2004 book). The hero’s journey, for one, is proven cinematic gold, as we’ve seen with the Marvel franchise’s takeover of 21st century cinema. This plot structure not only provides us with a thrilling adventure, but it allows us to indulge in the possibility that we, too, could one day be a hero. With social media personalities plastered all over our screens, it’s nice to escape into a fantasy world where the most ordinary people get the chance to prove their moral strengths. This is the kind of fantasy that screenwriter Tom O'Connor created in his Cold War espionage thriller, The Courier. Working with director Dominic Cooke, O'Connor pulls together a variety of historical sources to craft a classic based-on-true-events story that reminds us why we keep going back to the movies.
It’s 1960 in Great Britain, and moderately successful businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, in his own mind, far removed from escalating Cold War tensions. Dapper, suave, and ambitious, Wynne isn’t at all surprised when “trade department” representatives Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) invite him to lunch. But when Donovan and Franks reveal their identities as CIA and MI-6 agents, respectively, Wynne’s confident façade melts away to reveal a nervous, boyish, and slightly comedic character who cannot believe that he gets to work with real-life spies. Donovan has recently received communication from a high-ranking Soviet officer, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who has decided to offer information to the United States as he grows more fearful of Khrushchev’s chaotic and confrontational impulses. In order to communicate safely with Penkovsky, Donovan needs to hire an unlikely civilian who won’t attract attention, like Wynne, to act as their go-between.
In his portrayal of Wynne, Cumberbatch successfully shifts back and forth between a self-assured salesman who schmoozes clients on the golf course and a frightened little nobody who is unsure about working with spies. Wynne’s rookie perspective on CIA and MI-6 dealings are what make The Courier such an inviting narrative. As we sit out in the audience, we’re just as excited and as nervous as Wynne to dive into CIA secrets and immerse ourselves in special intelligence interactions. Wynne’s fish-out-of-water position creates comedic relief and makes it easy for us to connect with and root for him.
There’s a powerful, telling moment in The Courier in which Wynne is quite literally shut out of one of Donovan and Penkovsky's conversations. As the door shuts in his face, he is firmly reminded that even though he has risked his life to help, he is still an outsider. Thanks to good-old-fashioned cinema magic, however, the film lets the audience take part in that conversation, departing from Wynne’s perspective and showing us what happens behind closed doors. Of course, this is exactly what we want - despite the fact that we are 60 years removed from the events of The Courier and we already know what Penkovsky is going to say, we just can’t stand being shut out of the room. Even as I listened in on this fictionalized version of a top-secret, historical conversation, I found myself frustrated that The Courier hadn't maintained Wynne's perspective. Something about the moment just felt cheap, as if the previous shot in which Wynne was shut out of the conversation had been robbed of its impact. This moment is just one micro-level example of how The Courier as a whole struggles to balance artfulness with crowd-pleasing impulses. The story of The Courier could have been crafted into a clever, elegant narrative with tension and nuance more worthy of Cumberbatch’s performance, but O’Connor and Cooke instead opt for a feel-good story that will appeal to mass audiences. Neither storytelling option is right or wrong, but I definitely expected the film to be a little less formulaic after I had read its description and cast list. The Courier is not a bad movie, but its crowd-pleasing tendencies make it feel, at times, just a tad bit cheap. It’s less of the intense espionage thriller that it's been made out to be in the trailer and more of an emotional based-on-a-true-story flick about an unlikely man who saves the day.
In this fantasy of heroism, Wynne undergoes a transformation in which he must find his courage, determine his values, and make difficult personal sacrifices. His conflicts make for a touching and easy-to-watch story, even though they’re a bit predictable (Wynne gets a chance to prove himself with an important mission, he starts working out, he becomes more intentional with his family, his wife becomes suspicious, he lets his work get to him and yells at his kid, you get the idea). Still, Cumberbatch gives a dynamic performance that goes above and beyond what the role requires, taking the formulaic conflicts to a whole new level. He easily shifts between the debonair businessman and the clueless rookie spy, adding tension to the story by making us wonder if he’ll give himself away and thereby ruin the mission. The very last chunk of the film grants Cumberbatch a better chance to show off his acting chops, and of course, he doesn’t disappoint.
On the other hand, while Brosnahan is captivating in every moment, she doesn’t get a lot of chances to show off the acting skills that we all know she has. I wish she had been more heavily featured in The Courier, but being such a big fan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’m probably a bit biased. Still, The Courier’s treatment of Emily Donovan as a half-hearted feminist side-character is frustrating. It seems as if she was just thrown in as a panicked attempt to protect the film from criticism that it’s too focused on a straight white man. The feminist themes feel rushed, underdeveloped, and forced. Since Wynne’s wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), is more directly involved in his crisis of manhood, she gets a little bit more time in the spotlight. This role allows Buckley to show off a much different set of skills than what was required for her role in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), and I am beyond excited to see what she does next.
In addition to the magnetic pull of its fantastic cast, The Courier seduces us with the glossy sheen of a noir spy thriller. The simplistic hero’s fantasy is well-disguised by the delightful period costumes and eye-grabbing sets, which are magnified by Sean Bobbitt’s stunning cinematography. Abel Korzeniowski’s dramatic score sends us back in time and creates tension at precisely the right moments, firmly establishing the film as a thrilling spy flick. The Courier successfully translates real-life anecdotes into tense cinematic vignettes which are mellowed out by the cool glamour that we crave from historical dramas. The Courier isn’t grossly inaccurate or offensively fabricated (to my knowledge), but it is evidently more focused on the aesthetics of period dramas than historical fact. However, considering that it’s difficult to find comprehensive, trustworthy sources about Wynne (according to the film’s press notes), it makes sense that Cooke and O’Conner concentrated their efforts on crafting a feel-good story that appeals to our need for catharsis and drama. In short, The Courier fulfills cinema’s purpose of creating a space of fantasy. Whether or not it’s accurate, nuanced, or artful, it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
In theaters March 19, 2021
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."