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Thriller Thursdays: The Courier – The Unlikely Spy

An English salesman is made an unlikely spy to transport secrets from a Russian insider, with considerable danger to himself, but with the potential to save the world

Thriller Thursdays: The Courier – The Unlikely Spy
  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 06.37 PM, Jul 14, 2022

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In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

In one of the earlier scenes of The Courier, Oleg Penkovsky, a senior Soviet intelligence officer, tells Greville Wynne, a salesman-reluctantly-turned agent "Maybe we are only two people, but this is how things change." It is a philosophical and prescient thing to say, as they both become instrumental in changing the course of history in indelible ways.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a historical event which tested the sanity and safety of the Western World in tension-filled ways. But the backstory is as incredible as the more visible parts of the incident. Whilst Oleg Penkovsky, an extremely high-ranking official of GRU, was involved in secretly passing on the details of the Soviet build-up of nuclear missiles in Cuba to the west, it was an ordinary salesman called Greville who was recruited by MI6 and CIA to be the point-man to carry messages from, and to, Moscow and Oleg. The Courier, as it were.

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It helped that Greville (Benedict Cumberbatch) quite disliked his own job as a salesman, even telling his wife, that after successfully closing an order he converses with the customers with “some empty flattery, some blatant sucking up” and "missing the easiest putts in the history of putting" that he felt "filthy." Greville was obviously a man wishing for some meaning in life, the details of which he himself did not know. Of course, when he was approached to be a courier by the intelligence agents, Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) of the CIA and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of MI6, he refused, completely incredulous as to the inherent danger in the enterprise. Then he was told "You’re a middle-aged businessman who drinks a bit too much and isn’t exactly in top shape," and hence was just right for this near-clerical job. He was given an assurance that there was simply no danger. He just needed to be a salesman, out to capture a new market - Russia.

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Greville meets Oleg (Merab Ninidze) in Russia, as a part of a trade pitch he makes to the trade council in Russia, and their mutual chemistry paves the way to a slow-burning friendship. What ensues is that Oleg also visits London and spends time with Greville's family, through which they build a connection of dependence and respect. It also, in its own way, builds the trust for them to take risks and go beyond the danger they both faced on regular occasions. And in his home, Greville faces an increasingly suspicious wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), who sees her husband spending more and more time visiting Russia, and suspects the worst of him, as he acts strangely every time he returns. The conversations behind the marital door which Greville has with her is sometimes tougher than the spy work he does. But then nothing is straightforward in the world of espionage, and definitely not safe. And when emotions get in the way of hard-nosed decisions, situations explode and people implode.

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The film is thematically about big geopolitical issues but intrinsically is about the role of the small people. And like in all affairs of the world, the execution is invariably in the hands of these small people. Merab Ninidze as Oleg is a conflicted man with a face exuding integrity which finds its outlet in its own ways, sometimes it requires treachery to show how much love there is inside a man. As someone in the film says "There are good lies. Sometimes a lie is a gift, an act of love." It is a belief that changes lives, and sometimes - the world.

The Courier has a languorous build-up of suspense with no dramatics, just stolid espionage, but the film still manages to create unbelievable tension. There is an almost John-le-Carre feel of bleakness and inevitability which soon sinks in and fills the atmosphere with dread. The film is shot in colours which are rich and burnished, and as things move downhill become progressively sunless, cold and grey.

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Benedict Cumberbatch has a thin incongruous moustache which infests his upper lip, and he disappears into his role, fascinated but fearful to begin with, and a believer and a redeemer to end with. Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley are terrific as they delineate their conflicted roles. But it is Merab Ninidze as Oleg who is the heart of the film. As a man with a conscience, who is ready to risk his family and life to do what he feels is the right thing, he embraces the conflict and duality of his enterprise with heart-breaking sensitivity.

Those were terrifying times, one can see, as the existential threat of nuclear fallout slowly builds up, with advice being given on TV and radio as to what to do if there did ensue a nuclear attack. Concomitantly exposed, albeit as an opinion of a Russian agent, is the hypocrisy of American geopolitics, when he spews out the truth of how Americans could put missiles in Turkey but get hyper-agitated when Russians did the same in Cuba. In a world of right and might, what gives levity and hope, is finally the decency of ordinary people, who though on opposite sides of politics, can still reach into their conscience and rise far above their own vulnerabilities.

Amidst all the centrifugal forces ranging around both Oleg and Greville, they go to see a ballet show of 'Swan Lake', and trust each other enough to cry unashamedly at the tragedy of the story, as they sit next to each other. As they call out 'bravo' at the end of the scintillating performance, they are, in a strange way, also acknowledging each other's bravery and resilience. And one realizes at that moment that there is hope yet in this fractured world.

Trivia

  • The Courier was Benedict Cumberbatch's third film with British intelligence as the background.  He acted in The Imitation Game and  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy previously.
  • On 16th October 1962, President John F. Kennedy was given  photographs taken from recon planes which were flying over Cuba that showed  nuclear missiles. This crisis called the Cuban Missile Crisis saw the world get onto the brink of a nuclear war.
  • Greville Wynne's autobiography of 1967  'The Man From Moscow: The Story of Wynne and Penkovsky.' was made into a BBC film 'Wynne and Penkovsky' in 1985. However, The Courier's screenwriter Tom O'Connor was aware that the book might have fictionalised too many parts of the story, and its very verisimilitude was in question. Hence the book was hardly used as a reference.
  • Watch The Courier here.

    (Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

    (Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)

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