“The Courier” Review: The compelling performances of Cumberbatch and Ninidze elevate the film above its material

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

The late legendary British author John le Carré’s novels over the years have given us films such as A Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Russia House (1990), Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and A Most Wanted Man (2014), among others. Dominic Cooke's directorial The Courier, based on true events and real people, also appears to belong to le Carré’s oeuvre. Written by Tom O'Connor, it is largely plot driven with reasonable scope for character development as far as the major characters are concerned. The little action that it presents appears quite realistic and seems to work well with its plot.

Now, le Carré, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of espionage novels, added a whole new dimension to the spy fiction genre. In his conscious attempt to present spies that appear closer to the real-life, le Carré penned down plausible caricatures that lacked charm, romanticism and heroics of Ian Fleming's 007. John le Carré’s espionage artists lived routine boring lives plagued by the hardships of a common man. They represent a quintessential breed of anti-Bonds who have very little in common with Fleming’s larger-than-life superspy with the licence to kill.

Born David John Moore Cornwell, le Carré wrote a total of twenty-five novels and one volume of memoir titled ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’, which was published in 2016. He sold more than sixty million copies of his work worldwide. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). When his third novel titled ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’, published in 1963, became an international best-seller, he decided to leave MI6 and became a full-time author. It remains one of his best known works till date.

Now, I can say this without an iota of a doubt that John le Carré was a phenomenal storyteller and a penman par excellence, an undisputed master of spy fiction that formed a great parallel to Ian Fleming’s brand of espionage. In fact, the very reason I have come to truly admire the works of espionage is not because of Fleming’s James Bond but because of le Carré’s George Smiley. The latter created Smiley as an intentional foil to James Bond. For, he saw Bond as an inaccurate and misleading version of a spy. Smiley first comes across as innocuously polite, unassuming, and someone you don’t easily feel threatened by. He is clever enough to hide his razor-sharp memory, inner cunning, mastery of espionage, and his ability to quickly detach himself from his human subjects if need be.

It’s difficult to think of a film like The Courier without le Carré’s influence on the genre. The film essentially narrates the story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman who was recruited by MI-6 and CIA to deliver messages to secret agent and Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky, in the 1960s to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Interestingly, the film’s two leads, Wynne essayed by the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch and Penkovsky portrayed by the Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, have both gained prominence from their association with BBC shows, Sherlock and McMafia, respectively. And it’s really no surprise that their performances are the highlight of The Courier. For, the film certainly lacks in terms of budget. But let’s not forget that The Courier isn’t Bridge of Spies despite the obvious similarities between the two films. Even though Bridge of Spies is a kind of film that one generally doesn’t associate with Steven Spielberg who is ubiquitously renowned for his dazzling filmmaking style, the film ultimately is more in accordance with the American sense of valor and optimism than le Carré’s characteristic cynicism and futility.

However, The Courier, on the other hand, tries to look too gritty and realistic. And, in the process, it somewhere loses the charm that’s generally associated with old-fashioned spy thrillers such as A Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Russia House, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But the historical details involving the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lurking threat of WWIII and fact that Oleg Penkovsky was indeed the most valuable asset that the Western Block (the United States and its allies) were able to turn against the Eastern Block (Soviet Union and its allies) nevertheless make The Courier an important film. Also, the conviction with which both Cumberbatch and Ninidze essay their respectively parts actually succeeds in elevating the film above the material at hand. As a matter of fact, without these two performances, the film may not have been half as good. Of these two performances, Ninidze’s performance clearly stands as the first among equals. It certainly should have been acknowledged at the major award functions this year but unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.   

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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