What happens if you make a spy movie about a spy who's fairly dull and whose mission is not terribly clear? "The Courier."
It's not Benedict Cumberbatch's fault that his title character, a real British businessman with the really British name of Greville Wynne, is boring. Wynne is supposed to be boring; that's why he's chosen. But the movie has that English self-deprecation thing nailed all too well: "Chase scenes? Suspense? Oh, dear, no. We couldn't possibly. Thanks, awfully, though."
It's 1960 and tension between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. is nearing its Bay of Pigs peak when British and American officials in Moscow (Rachel Brosnahan plays a CIA agent) have the idea of getting Soviet intel by enlisting a spook no one would believe is a spook.
The genuine Wynne later claimed he'd been a spy for years, but for the purposes of this film, the former engineer goes along with it for the good of democracy (and to the loud chagrin of his unhappily in-the-dark wife, played by the extraordinary Jessie Buckley).
It all sounds very John le Carré — and it's set during the time when the man whose real name was David Cornwell was an MI6 operative — but what follows isn't an espionage movie. In fact, it seems unsure what it is.
One issue is that Wynne's Soviet counterpart, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), is a more compelling character with more to lose than Wynne. The movie seems so little interested in the details of Wynne's spying that it spends much more time manufacturing drama in his marriage and on human rights abuses after he is arrested and imprisoned (which required Cumberbatch to go on the Christian Bale crash diet).
It's all handled respectfully and methodically by director Dominic Cooke, but perhaps it's no coincidence that the theater hotshot's only other feature is about a honeymooning couple who never consummate their marriage ("On Chesil Beach"). Action is not exactly his middle name, so it may be a good sign that his Internet Movie Database page says his next project is a version of the stage musical "Follies," a show in which things actually do happen.
To be fair, things eventually happen in "The Courier," too — dramatic things — but they're presented in a way that is oddly bloodless and low-key. As a result, it feels like a documentary about an intriguing subject where the cameras weren't on when some of the best stuff happened. (Tellingly, the most eye-opening info in the film comes in a closing credits scrawl.)
By far the best scene is only tangentially related to the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Wynne and Penkovsky attend a performance of "Swan Lake" that Wynne admits is the first ballet he's ever seen. Cooke occasionally cuts to the action on stage but he mostly keeps the camera on Cumberbatch as he watches the poetic movement and listens to Tchaikovsky's glorious score.
Soon, tears are streaming down Cumberbatch's face, tears that I think are meant to reflect a character who is realizing the world is a much more complex and beautiful place than he ever realized. The movie was shot pre-pandemic but that scene may have special resonance now, when all arts fans are so starved to get back into theaters for a little who's-cutting-onions action of our own.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for partial nudity, smoking, language and violence.
Theater: Wide release.