A true real life spy thriller set in the early 1960s and staged to appeal to audiences old enough to have lived through, “The Courier,” stubbornly opposes any inclusion or influence from us until it’s almost over. However, by this point you may have fallen asleep.
Ideally, this shouldn’t happen when two stand-ups – one British, one Russian – might just barely prevent a nuclear apocalypse. But the director Dominic Cooke (whose feature film debut “On Chesil Beach” from 2018 touches the tragedy of broken intimacy) either cannot create tension or simply decides against it. The Cuban Missile Crisis could emerge in the background, but we barely feel his threat when Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an inconspicuous English salesman, is used as an intermediary between MI6 (in the form of a polite Angus Wright) and a Soviet officer named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze)) .
With its wood-paneled rooms and smoking cigarette smoke, “The Courier” is the spy cinema in its most beautiful form. Disappointingly, nobody hacks karate or turns fountain pens into tiny daggers. (Instead, they have lunch and attend the ballet.) We are told that Wynne must take a crash course in crafts before accepting Soviet secrets, but Tom O’Connor’s set script actively contradicts that excitement. We need an assembly!
Though Jessie Buckley as Wynne’s suspect wife and Rachel Brosnahan as the amusingly intrusive CIA agent add welcome bursts of feminine energy, “The Courier” is essentially the story of an extraordinary male friendship. The men’s mutual compassion is too late to save the picture, but it’s no less moving for that.
Rated PG-13 for a bit of violence and a blink-and-you-miss-it bedroom scene. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before viewing films in theaters.