The most interesting character in The Courier, a real-life tale of espionage set during Cold War days of the 1960s, isn't the man who gives the movie its title.
The Courier revolves around Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman whose travels to the Soviet Union caught the attention of MI6, the agency that eventually would recruit Wynne to act as a courier.
Under the guise of developing business relationships, Wynne made numerous trips to Moscow where he met a Soviet intelligence agent. The agent -- Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) -- provided Wynne with invaluable documents, including some pertaining to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Thanks to Ninidze’s finely tuned portrayal, Penkovsky emerges as a dedicated military man who believes that the nuclear threat is far too grave to be subordinated to chauvinistic devotions.
You probably can tell where I'm headed. Penkovsky seems a deeper, more intriguing character than Wynne, a salesman with no talent for spycraft. As played by Cumberbatch, Wynne eventually allows his role as an amateur spy to go to his head.
Cumberbatch handily shows how Wynne's ego inflates as he becomes more relaxed about what he's doing. His wife (Jessie Buckley) tells a friend that her husband's sexual appetites have been seriously boosted, although she doesn’t know why. She's not privy to her husband's secret life.
The Courier is another example of a story that creates interest the movie can't quite match, particularly when it comes to suspenseful atmospherics.
As told by director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O'Connor, Wynne feels responsible for helping Penkovsky and his family to escape to the West when things start to go bad. Penkovsky had been promised help exiting the Soviet Union.
Willing to cut its losses, British intelligence watched as both men were arrested. Wynne, who decided to act on his own in attempting to rescue Penkovsky, spent 18 months in a Soviet prison where he was beaten, tormented and starved.
He ultimately was released in a spy swap.
The movie finds its greatest power in its prison scenes: Cumberbatch seems to have followed a physical formula during Wynne's imprisonment, shedding weight to the point of emaciation.
Of the supporting performances, several are notable. Angus Wright portrays the MI6 contact who coaches Wynne and Rachel Brosnahan plays an American CIA agent, another of Wynne's contacts. Kirill Pirogov appears as the Soviet intelligence officer who begins to suspect that Penkovsky has become a traitor.
John Le Carre this isn't: Late in the movie, Penkovsky tells Wynne that they are only two people but that they can change the world. I don't know if the real Penkovsky, who committed suicide in prison, ever said anything like that but the sentiment seems trite for a movie that tries to thrive on complexity and intrigue.
These complexities (the willingness of intelligence agencies to exploit ordinary citizens and the torments of turning against one's country) don’t cut as deeply as they should.
A sturdy cast and a story that may be unfamiliar to many viewers help sustain interest but The Courier never seems more than a minor addition to the big-screen espionage canon.