Sometimes, a third act can make or break a picture. The Courier starts as a solid espionage thriller, but it becomes one of the genre’s best recent outings in the final forty minutes. Most modern trailers give away every major plot point. The marketing for The Courier has wisely kept spoilers to a minimum. Sitting down to watch the film, I knew little about Greville Wynne or Oleg Penkovsky. Chances are few mainstream audiences are familiar with them either. If you fall into that camp, do yourself a favor and don’t Google either of them until the credits roll. This true story is better experienced going in blind.
We’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch play confident characters like Sherlock Holmes and timid figures like Alan Turing. He finds an appropriate middle ground as Wynne, a salesman who regularly visits Eastern Europe on business. Nobody would ever suspect this mild-mannered family man of espionage. That’s part of the reason why Wynne is approached by MI6. Rachel Brosnahan, who gave one of last year’s most underrated performances in I’m Your Woman, once again shines as Emily Donovan, the CIA agent who recruits Wynne. While Donovan is a fictional character, she is based on several figures who worked with Wynne.
Wynne serves as a middle man between Donovan and Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intelligence colonel who passes on crucial information. Ironically, Ninidze previously played a Soviet interrogator in Bridge of Spies. Although not as well-known as Cumberbatch or Brosnahan, Ninidze gives perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking performance. He makes the audience feel the weight of the world bearing down on Penkovsky, knowing that his entire life could be obliterated at any time. As Penkovsky faces an internal crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis commences. Wynne and Penkovsky’s efforts helped prevent a full-blown nuclear war, but not without personal sacrifices.
As nail-biting as The Courier can be, it takes time for quiet, atmospheric moments that flesh out the unlikely friendship between Wynne and Penkovsky. This makes it all the more thrilling when one of them has their cover blown. Thus ensues a tense rescue mission that would be the climax in a more conventional film. Here, it’s only the ending of the second act. This leads to the riveting third act, which I won’t ruin by giving away too much information. What I will say is that the third act is arguably more gut-wrenching, suspenseful, and inspiring than The Mauritanian, which also coincidentally starred Cumberbatch.
Director Dominic Cooke previously made On Chesil Beach, although he’s primarily worked in theater. His stage background shines through in a masterfully edited sequence that takes place at a ballet. It’s a visually-driven scene that tells us what Wynne and Penkovsky are thinking without exchanging any dialogue. Cooke brings a cinematic flair to the screenplay by Tom O’Connor, who up until now has only written lame action pictures like Fire with Fire and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. With an all-around exceptional ensemble delivering the package, it’s well-worth decoding the message inside.
The Courier is playing exclusively in theaters March 19th.