The Courier is a Cold War spy thriller and the prospect of a Cold War spy thriller always makes my heart sink. There will be agents. There will be double agents and triple agents and maybe even quadruple agents. Is he working for our side while pretending to work for the Soviets as someone pretending to be working for us? After any Le Carré adaptation, for example, I also need debriefing in a wood-panelled room filled with cigarette smoke and there is still no saying I’ll emerge any the wiser. But The Courier isn’t like that. This is a damn good, explosively tense story that focuses on the friendship that develops between two men on opposite sides. And it is plainly wonderful.
Written by Tom O’Connor (not the comedian; don’t be silly), and directed by Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach and an associate of the National Theatre), the film is, remarkably, based on true events. It’s set in the early 1960s when the CIA and MI6 had been clandestinely contacted by a member of Russian military intelligence, Oleg Penkovsky — here played superbly by the Georgian actor Merab Ninidze. Alarmed by escalating tensions between the USSR and the West, he had offered secret information about his country’s nuclear capabilities and now someone is needed to smuggle this top-level intel out of Moscow who would not be suspected by the KGB. Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch, also superb), an unassuming British salesman who sold engineering products and could travel under the guise of trade. Wynne is just the man for the job, you wouldn’t think, and he doesn’t think so either. He is lunched by the pair who will become his handlers — played by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan — and when the penny drops he is entirely astonished: ‘I am having lunch with… spies?’