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Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Buckley entertain Soviet customers with a vodka toast in "The Courier."

Middlebrow films like The Courier were already having a tough enough time before the pandemic. Since it hit, everything that has come out has been either low-budget indie films (which carry minimal financial risk) or big-budget blockbusters. The appearance of this British spy thriller in our multiplexes this weekend is an encouraging sign that perhaps those films are on their way back. Even if it isn’t, this film based on historical events is still worth seeing on its own terms.

The film begins in 1960 with Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a World War II hero and the head of the Soviet Union’s Committee for Scientific Research, concluding that Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) is a belligerent drunk who can’t be trusted with nuclear launch codes. He approaches the West by handing classified intel to some random American exchange students, but with all the U.S. operatives in Moscow having been swept clean, CIA Agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) goes hat in hand to MI6 to have them contact the colonel. Penkovsky is so high-profile that merely approaching him with a spy could jeopardize him, so the British instead send Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an irreducibly ordinary industrial machinery salesman, to meet with the English-speaking Penkovsky under the guise of selling machine parts in the USSR while carrying Oleg’s information back to London. The friendship between the two men becomes of global importance after Penkovsky hears of his countrymen sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba.

The high-profile cast is the main draw here, and you see their capabilities in an early scene when Emily brings Greville on board by painting a vivid picture of a Soviet nuclear attack obliterating his family and the rest of London. Brosnahan gives a chilling reading of the speech, and the look on Cumberbatch’s face is perfect — Greville knows she’s trying to scare him and thinks it’s contemptible, but he’s scared anyway. As Greville’s wife, Jessie Buckley has a middle-class London accent that’s so crisp that it could have come straight off the racks at Harrods. This is likely your first exposure to Ninidze, a Georgian actor who has spent most of his career in German and British TV, and he delivers an unfussy and dynamic performance as a crafty operator who immediately spots the recorder hidden in Greville’s tie clip and knows what his Western spymasters will be looking for. As for Cumberbatch, he is uncannily present as this conventional man who figures out between bites of his steak that the trade rep he’s talking to (Angus Wright) is an MI6 officer; who’s recruited for the job precisely because he’s wholly unqualified to be a spy; who’s overwhelmed, turned on, and stressed out by his job; and who finds his courage and resolve in the situation he’s thrust into.

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The director here is Dominic Cooke, who received acclaim a few years ago for his debut feature On Chesil Beach. He makes smooth work of this sprawling story, most spectacularly in a multi-location set piece when Greville, Oleg, Emily, and a CIA driver are all pursued separately through the streets of Moscow by KGB agents. He only runs into trouble in the last third of the film, when Greville is thrown into a Soviet gulag and the plot comes to a stop. The movie turns into a prison drama, and despite a satisfying final meeting between Greville and Oleg, it gives us little that we haven’t seen in other such films. That’s disappointing, but The Courier still draws an engaging portrait of two men who avert a nuclear war by staying true to their friendship and themselves.

The Courier
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Written by Tom O’Connor. Rated PG-13.

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