The Courier movie

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in "The Courier," releasing in theaters this weekend.

“The Courier” is an unlikely story of espionage, bravery and most importantly, friendship, which might have saved the world as we know it.

The film is based on the true story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman, husband and father during the Cold War, who is recruited by British Intelligence and the CIA to insinuate himself into Russia, make contact with an informant and bring back communication of the country’s gains in nuclear warfare.

We meet Wynne, a committed family man who works hard to maintain his meager position in life. He’s unremarkable in many ways, which makes him the perfect patsy for the joint government venture to exploit.

Tapping into his civic duties, Wynne agrees to begin a new business prospect in Moscow. Given little information, Wynne blindly plunges into meetings with the corporate Russian leaders, but one man, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), notes a signal from Wynne and their partnership and, ultimately, their friendship begins.

This is a high-stakes game writer Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke tap into immediately. Oleg (aka Alex) demonstrates the dangers of his actions in the very first scene, and while the story rides a rhythmic wave of tension, the underlying current of life and death is never out of sight.

Upon multiple viewings, it’s evident O’Connor painstakingly plants seeds of verbal foreshadowing. These carefully sown seeds grow gradually to reveal government secrets, historical events that, perhaps before this film, were nothing more than footnotes in life and, finally, the conclusion of the men’s lives.

“The Courier” is an historical recreation, but it also has tremendous heart, thanks again to not only the direction and writing, but the superb performances by Cumberbatch and Ninidze.

These two characters could not have been any more different — their background, their position in life — but they find a commonality as men, husbands, fathers and with the hope for peace and the greater good — perhaps at their own expense.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Wynne finds the subtle characteristics that allow us to connect with him. You can see the hesitancy in his initial response as well as the complacency he has grown to embrace.

His confidence lacking, he begins to fancy himself a spy as we see a simper delicately wash over his face upon the completion of his first task. That, of course, quickly fades as he realizes he is in over his head, ill-equipped physically and emotionally to be a spy.

Ultimately, this is a story of friendship forged under pressure, as precious as a diamond, and Cumberbatch’s and Ninidze’s authenticity give way to an evocative one. The initial goal of the two men is to parlay information, but upon subsequent meetings, the men learn more about one another and that connection cannot be severed, even under duress.

Loyalty is a key element in their unlikely friendship, which places us in their shoes, questioning ourselves as to whether or not we possibly could react so selflessly.

Cooke expertly takes us back in time to this era in both England and Russia. We are submerged in the murkiness of underhanded politics as well as the cost analysis.

With so many moving parts in this puzzle, it would be easy to get lost, but with succinct writing and editing, the story is a heartfelt and captivating one, clearly relaying this complicated tale.

We remind ourselves during the quickly paced running time of just less than two hours this is based on a true story, and it punctuates the harrowing situation most of us never had heard of.

It is these unsung heroes who unknowingly have changed the course of history who need their stories sung from the highest mountaintops. Thanks to the talents of O’Connor, Cooke and the entire cast and crew of “The Courier,” we can.

Reel Talk rating: 4 stars

Pamela Powell is a film critic located in Bourbonnais and a member of the CFCA and the CCA, and is a Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Writing reviews for 10 years, Pamela also can be found on WCIA TV in Champaign. She can be contacted at

Film critic

New York native film critic Pamela Powell now resides in Bourbonnais where she has been reviewing big blockbuster films as well as independent gems for the last 10+ years.