The Courier M. 111 minutes. 3 stars
Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was an unlikely hero. He was a British industrial salesman, married with one child, who frequently travelled to Eastern Europe on business.
It was this very ordinariness that made him useful. In 1960, he was recruited by Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 to act as a courier while on business trips, smuggling classified information supplied by Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intelligence (GRU) colonel. The work done by Wynne and Penkovsky provided Britain and the US with crucial information at a particularly tense period in relations between the USSR and the West during the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis when nuclear war seemed to be an all too real possibility.
It's a good premise for a film and, despite the usual cinematic fiddling and compression and composite characters - the fact that it's largely true makes it compelling.
There are the low-key interactions that understate the high stakes and danger involved, the paranoia that must be concealed, the feeling of being watched at all times, and the surreptitious gathering and transferring of data.
Wynne is depicted as something of a bon vivant, a glad-handing, heavy-drinking schmoozer. Some of the talents required in sales and spying are the same, such as presenting a convincing front to persuade people and allay suspicion.
Things are tricky for him at home as well as abroad. Wynne's been unfaithful, and while his wife Sheila (Jesse Buckley) forgave him once, her suspicions are aroused by his frequent absences and changed behaviour (he has to keep things from her).
The growing relationship between Wynne and Penkovsky provides some human interest, as the two men develop a friendship, their families meeting when the Soviet official is part of a delegation to Britain. But a key event that precipitates the latter part of the film appears to be an unnecessary fabrication.
The Courier has a familiar feeling, with elements reminiscent of earlier espionage films (John Le Carre adaptations, Bridge of Spies).
There are the low-key interactions that understate the high stakes and danger involved, the paranoia that must be concealed, the feeling of being watched at all times, and the surreptitious gathering and transferring of data. These are, however, effective when well deployed and writer Tom O'Connor and director Dominic Cooke do a pretty good job in depicting the highs and lows of the story.
A brief end title reveals little of what happened to Wynne afterwards. He wrote a couple of self-aggrandising and unreliable accounts of his work, suffered long-term effects from his incarceration including depression and alcoholism, and was divorced twice.
While he was far from perfect, and some details of his work might be questioned or unknown, the film makes a good case for remembering and celebrating Wynne. Nor should we forget Penkovsky and his sacrifice.