The Screen Scene: The Courier

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

(WRBL) – There’s something about Britain that breeds top-notch spy thrillers. Maybe it’s in their genes? Maybe the fog and the rain of London are simply the perfect fit for trench coats and fedoras? Whatever the reason, British novelists and filmmakers have produced some of the best spy stories of all time. From the books of John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett to films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and the James Bond franchise, spies seem more authentic when they have a British accent.

While The Courier, a new spy film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, may not be in the same league as The Day of the Jackal, it’s still a welcome addition to a long UK film tradition. Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman with no connection to the intelligence services. He’s a complete outsider to the world of espionage, which makes him the perfect person to send to the Soviet Union to retrieve information from Oleg Penkovsky, a highly-placed Russian minister with a guilty conscience.

The film opens in 1960. Nikita Khrushchev is posturing on the world stage, making the West nervous. How much of a threat is the Soviet nuclear arsenal? How much is reality? How much is Khrushchev’s desire to be perceived as a global power? Penkovsky is willing to leak information to the US to ease tensions between the two governments. He just needs a go-between with an air-tight cover to act as a courier. Someone like Greville Wynne.

The Courier is not an action film. It focuses more on the people than events. There are no action set pieces. It’s much more cloak and dagger. Some may find it a bit slow , but I found it a refreshing alternative to cardboard characters and constant explosions.

It’s difficult to craft a historical thriller with genuine suspense because the audience already knows the outcome of the unfolding events. The Courier chronicles the days leading up to, and following, the Cuban Missile Crisis. We know the world didn’t end in a giant mushroom cloud. The suspense is derived from your emotional investment in the characters. The outcome matters because you genuinely care about them.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a compelling performance as a man out of his depth who reluctantly becomes committed to a cause. Cumberbatch manages to keep the stiff British upper lip, delivering his dialogue with clipped efficiency. But, the weight of his performance is found in his eyes. The audience can see the fear, reluctance, sadness and even anger hidden behind his words. It’s a perfect approach to the role. As an amateur, it would take him time to develop the same poker face as his more experienced colleagues. So, he’s easier to “read” than the people around him.

Best-selling novelist Tom Clancy once lamented the end of the Cold War when it came to inspiration for his international thrillers. The world of East versus West, America versus Russia, made for compelling storytelling within a time-honored tradition. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, it was difficult to find another credible enemy for the United
States. The real world and thrillers turned to terrorism as the new enemy.

I found The Courier to be a welcome throw-back to the spy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s. It’s the kind of mid-budget film that used to be the bread-and-butter of the box office that we rarely see in the age of tentpole blockbusters. Give it about thirty minutes to work its magic on you, and you’ll be hooked.

The Courier is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Premium VOD outlets.

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