While watching Dominic Cooke’s “The Courier,” I couldn’t help but wonder how many other unsung heroes there were like its main character, Greville Wynne.
An English salesman who doubled as a spy for England in the early 1960s, this was a man who put himself in great danger in order to shepherd vital information out of the Soviet Union in an effort to expose the country’s activity in Cuba.
As told by Cooke, this is a fascinating character study that follows Wynne from being something of an innocent patsy to becoming a brave, selfless agent who discovers he has a greater purpose and embraces it.
And while this is fascinating, the driving force of the film is the friendship that forms between two unlikely allies, men who come to recognize they are kindred souls despite their obvious differences.
Longing to get ahead, Wynne is the sort of salesman who is constantly on the move to close his next sale and takes any opportunity that comes his way.
As such, when two undercover British agents suggest he pursue business opportunities in the Soviet Union, he jumps at the chance.
Behind the Iron Curtain, he makes contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Mereb Ninidze), a military intelligence officer who presents himself as an official who can help him foster lucrative corporate deals that will benefit both countries.
However, he has an ulterior motive.
Convinced Russian leader Nikita Krushchev will plunge the world into nuclear war, Penkovsky is determined to share vital information with the West to prevent this and convinces Wynne to be his mule.
This is a role Wynne is initially reluctant to take, but, as his friendship with Penkovsky grows, he comes to realize not only its importance on international stage but as a personal one as well.
The similarities between him and his Russian counterpart are striking regarding their love of family and country, as well as sharing a sense of common decency that’s far too rare in this culture of paranoia.
Just as surprising is the sense of purpose he finds and embraces as well, as the excitement these activities provide give his rather mundane life a much-needed boost.
As Wynne, Benedict Cumberbatch is given the opportunity to display his range, going from well-meaning family man, longing to get ahead to a selfless patriot who comes to realize he has reserves of strength and courage he never knew he possessed.
Cumberbatch’s gradual transformation allows the viewer to see the ever-expanding world of espionage and subterfuge through his eyes, this approach working to great effect.
Ninidze is equally compelling, as he too convincingly changes over the course of the film, a sense of fear and paranoia ultimately wearing down this noble man until all that is left is a frail vessel of good intentions.
Meanwhile, the 21st century’s great chameleon, Jessie Buckley, shines as Wynne’s wife, doing this woman justice in sincerely rendering not only her suspicions regarding her husband’s activities but ultimately her great strength and pride.
In the end, “The Courier” is a testament to honor, loyalty and friendship in the face of governmental oppression and fear.
And while the story takes place six decades ago, the film remains an indictment of any modern country that would actively suppress the will of its citizens, blindly ignoring their well-being in pursuit of a flawed and dangerous agenda.
Powerful and poignant to the end, Wynne’s story is one that resonates through the years, his life a shining example of one man’s efforts to ward off tyranny.