Gritty Cold War espionage stories became outdated after the Berlin Wall came down.
Once the wall which had divided the great city was torn down in 1989, it became a little unfashionable to present stories about the red menace emanating from Moscow.
These stories had been the counter to one of the most successful franchises in movie history: James Bond, agent 007 with a “licence to kill.”
Bond films had always been in colour and – mostly – exempt from eastern Europe. His screen run began with Dr No (1962) and opened a new vista into the world of the sexy spy in dinner jacket, seducing every woman who came within dry martini range. Bond reappeared in From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) before a sort of counter product was distributed.
English film makers trawled their libraries and minds to join the success. They opted for writers of the John le Carre-Len Deighton school who had thrilled readers with far-less glamorous but equally successful male spies like George Smiley and Bernard Samson. On screen it perhaps first came to the fore with le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas.
Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966) quickly followed with Michael Caine’s* Harry Palmer given a Bond-like tweak. His bespectacled secret agent had a way with the ladies.
Reality had been brought back into the genre in black and white with anti-heroes employing tradecraft and double agents while wearing cheap off-the-rack trench coats. No exotic locations just grimy weather from London to Moscow.
After ’89 and Berlin became an open city, new villains had to be found. Russians were good for awhile in movie land but a few decades later returned as “mafia” and these were either old KGB or sadistic bad guys of an even more dire persuasion.
Film producers looked to unexpected heroes to counter these horrible people. They also looked into history to tell stories combining the grittiness of 1950-60s eastern Europe with unsung or unlikely leading players. A good example was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015) where Tom Hanks’ lawyer character defends an accused Soviet spy played by Mark Rylance.
Thus it is with The Courier (2020), the second feature directorial effort of Dominic Cooke, whose debut was three years back with the excellent On Chesil Beach (2017).
The title character is Greville Wynne, a salesman with trade connections to the Baltic countries. Wynne, played in typical brilliant fashion by Benedict Cumberbatch is a liar, alcoholic and has been found out cheating on his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley). He is an unlikely spy but seems a perfect fit for MI6 and CIA to liaise with a new source of Nikita Khrushchev-era Soviet information.
The source, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), is a highly placed trade official and military hero. He has become disenchanted with Khrushchev’s apparent bellicosity and wants to warn the West of exactly what they are up against.
The Courier hints that Penkovsky’s information, brought out of the Soviet Union by Wynne, shows Khrushchev is holding a much weaker nuclear hand than he has publicly portrayed, thus giving US president John F. Kennedy a stronger stance against the Soviet bluster when Russian missile sites are found in Cuba. Balance is supplied in some ways in The Courier when a KGB investigator tells Wynne that the US has for years had missile sites in Turkey with arms aimed at Moscow but won’t tolerate the Russians having a similar arrangement with Cuba. Fair point but I suppose it depends on whose side you’re on?
Wynne and Penkovsky form a strong friendship and bond which works well – the film claiming that more than 5000 secret documents were brought out due to their liaison.
However, all good things come to an end and, when Wynne returns to Moscow in case his friend needs to defect+, a problem occurs which would spoil the plot for those yet to see the film.
Ninidze was remarkable as the Soviet spy and I racked my brain thinking where I had seen him before. Though many of the films and TV series he had appeared in were known to me, I had not watched them so I can only guess as to why he seems so familiar. I do know I want to see him again because he was good.
Buckley, the Irish singer and actress, came straight to mind. She was the nutty, poisoner nurse in the fourth instalment of TV’s Fargo (2020). The woman certainly has range.
There was a lot more depth to The Courier if you went looking for it but enough to say thank God they still make movies like this for those cinema goers, in the famous words sung by Rupert Holmes “if you have half a brain.”
* It is topical given the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh to repeat Michael Caine’s story about attending a party in London when he and a mate went into the kitchen of the house to get another drink. While there, they were joined by Prince Philip, who looked at Caine and said: “You’re that Ipcress fellow aren’t you?”
- In an earlier scene of The Courier, there is a lovely nod to The Hunt For Red October (1990) when Penkovsky tells Wynne he would like to live in Montana and perhaps become a cowboy. Sam Neill’s Soviet submarine captain says a similar thing to Sean Connery’s admiral when their defection plan is in place: Capt. Vasili Borodin : “I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck… maybe even a “recreational vehicle.” And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?”
# The Courier is based on true events. For the “true” story of Greville Wynne’s espionage career, go to: