The trappings of spycraft we see in the movies—the tiny cameras, the furtive code words uttered into pay phones, the trench-coated figures darting about in the shadows—are now so familiar that they come across as anything but secretive. But in real life, a spy has to merge into his or her surroundings like a whisper. You couldn’t cast a more convincing spy than Benedict Cumberbatch, a star whose chief attribute is an aura of charming anonymity. It’s not that he’s drably unnoticeable; it’s simply that his charisma is less bright gold than burnished bronze. He’s discretion personified, with a dash of savoir faire. His is the face of a man who keeps his secrets close to the vest, and would button yours in even closer.
In The Courier, which is based on a true story, Cumberbatch plays a businessman who ferried secrets between Great Britain and the then-Soviet Union during the Cold War. Greville Wynne was an engineer and a family man, recruited by MI6 in 1960 to connect with a member of Russian military intelligence named Oleg Penkovsky—here played by the superb Georgian actor Merab Ninidze—who, alarmed by escalating tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the West, had offered secret information about his country’s nuclear capabilities. Wynne didn’t know exactly what information he was carrying, but his mission was still extremely dangerous, and the second half of The Courier details the price he ultimately paid.
Until that point, The Courier has a jaunty, larkish quality: when Greville is first approached by a CIA and an MI6 agent working in tandem—played by Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright—he’s more amused than bemused by their poker-faced professionalism, their aims disguised by almost comically vague language. “I can’t believe I’m actually having lunch with…spies!” he says, looking from one to the other as if he’s already weaving a story to tell his wife, Sheila (a marvelously wry and subtle Jessie Buckley), at the dinner table. That won’t come to pass: Greville is sworn to secrecy, though his mission at first only involves traveling to Russia to meet with a group of businessmen and make contact with Penkovsky, whom he’ll come to know as Alex. The mission seems harmless enough, until he’s pressed into service for further trips, bringing top-secret information back with him. Over several visits—and one in which Alex comes to England—the two men get to know one another and become friends. Greville and Sheila have a young son, and Alex has a family, too, a wife and a daughter. Before long, Greville has been drawn in both by the sober necessity of his mission—his handlers have scared him, manipulatively, with horror stories about what would happen to his family in the event of a nuclear attack—and by his loyalty to Alex. When he’s told he’s no longer needed—a withdrawal that would leave Alex dangling, with no way to defect to the West with his family, an escape the CIA and MI6 have promised to effect—he begs his handlers to let him return to Russia one last time, a trip that twists the story into more somber corners.
Directed by Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach), and written by Tom O’Connor, The Courier is almost two films in one: the second half is much darker and more intense than the first, but the shift is so delicately abrupt that at first you barely register it. That’s part of the movie’s edgily engaging artistry; what begins as a shadowy spy adventure ends in a place of mournful resignation. The movie is honest about the decidedly unglamorous side of spying: chiefly, that it’s a line of work in which human beings are often treated as easily discarded pawns. And beyond its depiction of the usual spy stuff (including those mini cameras, about the size of a disposable lighter, which somehow, even in an era of digital information still feel small and dangerous), the picture’s sober mood is embedded in its images. In a pivotal scene, Alex brings Greville to a performance of Swan Lake in Moscow; cinematographer Sean Bobbit pits the expressive brightness of the dancers onstage against the tension wound tight in Greville’s heart, which shows on his face in a few discreet but fervent tears—an Englishman’s tears, which are either a cliché or one of the deepest expressions of human feeling, depending, perhaps, on who’s doing the crying.
When it’s Cumberbatch, those tears are deeply believable, though it’s Ninidtze who sneaks off with the movie. Ninidtze’s list of IMDb credits, many of them in European, English and American TV series, is long, and he had a starring role in Caroline Link’s 2001 drama Nowhere in Africa. Overall, for casting purposes it appears that he’s a reliable go-to when you need a serious-looking Russian guy (as if there were any other kind). But his performance in The Courier made me hope to see more of him in the movies, and in bigger roles. As Alex Penkovsky he carries infinite gradations of feeling in his eyes: We see his anxiety for his family, his sense of responsibility about preventing nuclear destruction, but also his tangled love for his country. When Greville asks him where, if he were to defect, he might like to live, he says Montana—he’s seen pictures of it, and it reminds him of the countryside where he grew up. As it examines facets of betrayal and loyalty, The Courier speaks most directly through Ninidtze’s eyes. They tell us what it means to love a place that has betrayed you, a place on the map you can no longer call home, even as your wishes for what it ought to be throb in your heart.