Cold War Spy Film Alert: Benedict Cumberbatch Goes All MI6 in ‘The Courier’

Though it was surely a key factor in America ultimately being divided so sharply along party lines (with Democrats still to this day being referred to as “Commies” by contentious/clueless Republicans), one thing you could definitely say about the Cold War? It made for all sorts of riveting, nuclear-riffic entertainment, quite a bit of it obviously 007 related. In fact – at least after the horrors of Stalin – the political and military sparring between the US and the Soviet Union was at times rather a lot of fun…and sometimes actually even sexy (to wit, Famke Janssen’s murderous Xenia Onatopp in the Bond film Goldeneye).

But the new 1960s-set spy film The Courier (Roadside Attractions / Lionsgate, in theaters March 19) is a greyer, somewhat more serious affair than, say, From Russia With Love. It’s actually based on a true story (we’re pretty sure the Bond films weren’t) – so rocket-firing Aston Martin’s were obviously out of the question. In it, the beloved Benedict Cumberbatch plays real life businessman Greville Wynne, who was chosen to infiltrate the USSR precisely because he was rather an unremarkable fellow – and thus not as likely to be suspected of undertaking anything so remarkable as spying on the Soviets.

The first trailer has arrived, and the tone is decisively set when we hear a voice insisting, “If this mission was the least bit dangerous, you really are the last man we’d send.” Which is reassuring, but also anything but a compliment to Mr. Wynne.

And yes, the script is certainly not above a bit of cleverness and cheek. At one point an American intelligence official hands Greville a tie pin with the instructions, “Make sure you wear it while you’re in Moscow.” To which he snarkily queries, “What does this do? Shoot poison darts?” Naturally, Cumberbatch handles the subtle sardonicism with a very English sort of linguistic panache.

The cinematography is also a character unto itself, shot with filters to give the proceedings something of a dreary sepia tone, to perhaps emphasize a very English / Russian sort of drabness – perfect for a retro spy film not actually starring Sean Connery. And the dialogue fits the tone, as we hear the newly minted MI6 agent being warned, “Everyone you meet, assume they are KGB. Every Russian is an eye of the State.” And so it was back then.

Jessie Buckley (Fargo) stars as his worry-ravaged wife, while Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is convincingly stoic as his efficient CIA contact, who is collabing with the Brits on the mission. And the trailer closes with Merab Ninidze’s Oleg Penkovsky – a Russian conspirator – insisting to a skeptical Wynne, “Maybe we’re only two people – but this is how things change.”

And wouldn’t you know, 30 years later, they actually did.

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