Review: 'The Courier' a classy spy thriller that forgets to thrill

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Cold War-era spy movie that never comes alive

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The Benedict Cumberbatch spy drama "The Courier" helps put the "cold" in Cold War.

In it, Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British salesman who is recruited as a go-between for MI6 and the Soviets as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens nuclear extinction. There's plenty of spy stuff going on — think "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," with its gray color palate and studied scenes of curious gazes, not "The Bourne Identity," with its, you know, action sequences — but Wynne's not privy to it, and the movie's mostly not interested either. As a result, the whole enterprise is rendered rather stiff.

Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Courier."

Cumberbatch's Wynne is frequently in the Soviet Union, where he is teamed with a Russian officer, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Oleg is the one doing the heavy lifting, but the movie's not named for his character, so we get scenes of Wynne at home and the stress his work is putting on his relationship with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley, trapped in a housewife role, a crime against Buckley that should not go unpunished).

Over the course of the movie, enough of a friendship grows between Wynne and Penkovsky that they're eventually able to enjoy an opera together, and it's telling that in this would-be thriller the most moving scene is of two people watching an opera together. "The Courier" switches gears in its final act to focus on Wynne's imprisonment, which seems like an entirely different movie altogether, or at least something around which the rest of the movie would or should be framed. 

It's a handsome, admirable production with solid performances but no sense of life. A nuclear countdown is ticking in the background and "Swan Lake" steals the show. Talk about not delivering.


'The Courier'


Rated PG-13: for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout

Running time: 111 minutes

In theaters