The Courier Review: Benedict Cumberbatch & Merab Ninidze's nostalgic spy thriller is 'subtlety' at its finest

Updated on Aug 03, 2021 07:29 AM IST  |  393.4K
The Courier released in India today, i.e. August 2
The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze.

The Courier

The Courier Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Jessie Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright

The Courier Director: Dominic Cooke

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime Video

The Courier Stars: 3.5/5


The Courier is deeply reminiscent of Casablanca's iconic parting dialogue: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Inspite of what's at stake in terms of the IRL storytelling, what with the cataclysmic possibility of the world ending, the Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze starrer rather depicts the power of human emotions and how an unlikely friendship can end even a god damn nuclear war between two countries.

What will intrigue moviegoers at the beginning is the fascinating yet hard to believe real-life story, set in the Cold War era and which marked the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of an ordinary British businessman turned spy for his country, Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch). Greville is scouted by CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to fly to the Soviet Union and play courier between them and reputed GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), codename: Ironbark. The reason why Greville is the chosen one is because of his amicable ability to blend and be inconspicuous, given how his profession will immediately intrigue the Soviet Union with his supposed capitalistic greed.

Upon introduction to Oleg, who rather go by Alex, the two form a close friendship up to the point of being acquainted with each other's families while partying many nights away, both in Moscow and London. Given the crucial information being shared by Oleg of Nikita Khrushchev's (Vladimir Chuprikov) maniacal ill intentions of an all-out nuclear war attack against the United States, Greville's one-time flight turns to multiple deliveries taking place as integral content is leaked. This secret mission obviously doesn't bode well with Greville's home life as his wife Sheila Wynne (Jessie Buckley) suspects him of having an affair, given his latest affinity for rigorous push-ups and trying new tactics while in bed together. It also doesn't help that Greville has digressed in his marriage before.


Upon imminent danger, Greville is pulled from the secret operation but the businessman's surprising immediate concern is for the safety of his friend Alex, who was promised help in return to defect along with his loving wife and daughter. Amid the thousands of deliveries exchanged and genius behind employing Greville, who has no connection to the British intelligence agency, the secrecy was always never built to last and the two friends have to face the wrath of their deadly actions.

Benedict was tailor-made for Greville and does a terrific job of embodying the real-life hero's early aloofness, the intermediary unadulterated terror of getting caught and tremendous valour when imprisoned by the ferocious tactics of the KGB. There's also the physical transformation undertaken valiantly by the Oscar-nominated actor showing years of scars (both through Greville's body and mental state of mind) while imprisoned. On the other hand, Merab is simply stupendous in his defeated yet hopeful performance as Alex battles between betraying his country by becoming a British mole and never swaying when it comes to the immense love he has for his motherland. Inspite of the limited duration of 111 minutes, Cumberbatch and Ninidze do a fine job in evoking the audience's wide-eyed attention to Greville and Alex's twisted friendship, which boils over as the key factor to one of Alex's head-scratching decisions in the culminating few moments.


A sure-shot delight, who deserved more screen time was Jessie as Greville's wife Sheila and the mother to their adorable son. While equally boisterous and dominant as her husband in society and inside their home, Sheila's entire life is turned upside down by Greville's imprisonment. In one crucial sequence, upon the realisation that her husband's theorised infidelity was actually him fulfilling his duty to the country, Buckley justly portrays a guilt-struck Sheila's apologetic meltdown. Rachel comes right when needed and doesn't overstay her welcome, which was a major letdown as I'd have loved to see more character development.

What The Courier excels in is its absolution of subtlety while making us nostalgic for old spy thrillers. Instead of the thrills and frills that are often attached to cinematic spies, we're welcomed to Opera outings, caviar lunches and Moscow street strolls. Tom O'Connor, who wrote the 'based on true events' screenplay of The Courier, laid heavy emphasis on the bond between Greville and Alex. While it's a valiant attempt at deflecting the storyline, gaining sympathy for Greville and Alex in the process, there's also a sense of detachment and triviality towards the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Through Dominic Cooke's direction, while The Courier starts off on a strong note, the latter sequences inside KGB's imprisonment feel repetitive to the genre it caters to. Nevertheless, the story itself is so rich that you're left intrigued. Moreover, Greville and Alex's last encounter will tame even the coldest of hearts!

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Assisting instead, in terms of adding depth to the danger Greville and Alex have put themselves in The Courier, is Sean Bobbitt's dim-lit cinematography and Abel Korzeniowski's dramatic score which helps transport us back to the 1960s.

In finality, amid fictional superheroes battling to save the world (mostly New York!), The Courier sheds considerable spotlight on two unexpected real-life heroes, who deserve their tales of courage averting a cataclysmic crisis, to be showcased to the world on the silver screen.