The Courier (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): One British businessman turned into a spy

“The Courier”, which was simply released as “The Spy” yesterday in South Korean theaters, is a modest but engaging drama which is based on one of many interesting real-life stories from the Cold War era. Mainly revolving around one ordinary man who happened to get himself involved into a highly risky espionage operation, the movie gives a series of suspenseful moments as expected from its genre, but it is also touching at times as observing what is developed between its hero and a man whom he reluctantly comes to work with.

The story of the movie, which is set in the early 1960s, begins with how a Russian colonel named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) comes to decide that he should risk his own life for saving not only his country but also the whole world. During that time, Nikita Khrushchev, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during that period, was quite willing to go further in the ongoing political conflict with US, and Penkovsky firmly believes that Khrushchev’s potentially disastrous political gamble must be stopped by any means necessary. While being as discreet as possible, he attempts to approach to CIA, and CIA, which is mainly represented by a CIA officer named Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) in the movie, is certainly excited to have a valuable source like Penkovsky, who can incidentally access to lots of classified information as a high-ranking military intelligence officer.

However, due to the recent arrest of one of their biggest assets in the Soviet Union, CIA should be really careful in establishing a correspondence line with Penkovsky, and that is where MI6 enters the picture. After talking a bit with MI6 officer Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), Donovan approaches to a fairly successful British businessman named Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbdatch), who, considering his business background associated with the Eastern Europe region, looks like an ideal mediator between them and Penkovsky. All he will have to do is forming a seemingly doubtless business relationship with Penkovsky in Moscow, and that will provide enough cover for Penkovsky when he later comes to London then meets Donovan and Franks in secret.

Understandably concerned about what may happen to him if things ever go wrong, Wynne is not very willing to go to Moscow and then meet Penkovsky, but he is eventually persuaded by Donovan, and then he finds himself getting involved into the situation more than expected. After having a secret meeting with Donovan and Franks, Penkovsky demands that Wynne should work as a courier for him, and Wynne reluctantly agrees to help Penkovsky more as being more aware of how the political situation between the Soviet Union and US is becoming more volatile day by day.

Anyway, Wynne soon gets accustomed to handling those small packages handed to him by Penkovsky, and, not so surprisingly, he comes to care about Penkovsky’s safety after getting to know him and his family, who has no idea on what he has been doing behind his back. Donovan promised that Penkovsky and his family will quickly and safely be sent away from the Soviet Union if he happens to be exposed, but there is no absolute guarantee on her promise, and both Penkovsky and Wynne become more nervous in front of the growing possibility of getting caught for their espionage activity.

In the meantime, Wynne’s frequent business trips to Moscow put considerable strain on his relationship with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), who has a good reason for not trusting her husband’s words much. Even when clearly recognizing how much his wife has been exasperated and frustrated, Wynne has to keep hiding his national secret behind his back as before, and there inevitably comes a point where Sheila comes to decide that enough is enough.

During the last act which is involved with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the mood becomes a bit more intense than before, but Tom O’Connor’s screenplay does not hurry itself while not losing the focus on its two main characters. Although knowing well the consequence they are going to face in one way or another, both Wynne and Penkovsky try their best for each other to the end, and there is real human poignancy around the eventual end of their story.

Under the competent direction of director Dominic Cooke, the main cast members of the film are solid on the whole. While Benedict Cumberbatch, who also participated in the production of the movie as one of its several executive producers, gives another strong performance to watch, Merab Ninidze is equally compelling on the opposite position, and they ably convey to us the growing respect and care between their characters along the plot. In case of several other main cast members, Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright do as much as they can do with their respective functional characters, and Jessie Buckley, who has become more prominent since her breakthrough performance in “Wild Rose” (2018), imbues her rather thankless role with enough life and personality.

In conclusion, “The Courier” is sometimes predictable and familiar to the core, but and it is fairly entertaining enough for recommendation thanks to the skillful handling of mood, story, and characters. Although it does not aim that high, it accomplishes its mission in the end with some emotional resonance, so I will not grumble for now.

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