Merab Ninidze, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch star in “The Courier.” (Courtesy Liam Daniel/Roadside Attractions)

Merab Ninidze, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch star in “The Courier.” (Courtesy Liam Daniel/Roadside Attractions)

Cumberbatch, powerful story make ‘Courier’ worth seeing

But pace is slow, and female characters lack substance

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Opening at the Metreon, the Tanforan and some other theaters, but not on demand/digital, “The Courier” is a steady, unremarkable biopic about a most remarkable, steadfast man.

Greville Wynne was an ordinary chap, a salesman who was one day recruited by MI6 to connect with a high-ranking, disgruntled Soviet official and help smuggle intel back to London.

He’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a clever, finely-tuned performance. Cumberbatch draws his lips back into a thin line across his face, paralleled by a thin mustache. The effect makes him seem rounder and smaller, the opposite of the actor’s tall, commanding Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Strange characters.

In the early scenes, he’s almost goofy, charming his potential buyers over food and drinks, and then coming home to his wife, Sheila (the wonderful Jessie Buckley of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), pouring himself a large whisky and sinking into a chair.

When the phone rings, he announces, “Tell them I’m in my chair!”

The movie begins, terrifyingly, with a raging, spewing Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov), ranting about the United States and threatening to “bury” us.

It’s 1960, and Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has had enough. He is determined to use his station to defy this leader and get valuable intel to the U.K. for as long as he can get away with it.

A contact man is needed. MI6 agents Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” series) and Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) realize that they can’t send an actual trained spy; they would be too easy to identify. So they zero in on Greville, who regularly makes trips to Eastern Europe anyway. It won’t look terribly suspicious if he also seeks to expand his business in the Soviet Union.

He meets Penkovsky — “call me Alex” — and the two men become fast friends. “Can you hold your alcohol?” asks Alex.

“It’s my one true gift,” says Greville.

The men bond, with Alex feeling gratitude toward Grenville, and Grenville finding Alex charming and interesting, especially when Alex suggests that he might defect to America and become a cowboy.

Their scenes together provide the beating heart of “The Courier,” and they help drive the more unpleasant, second half of the film, when — inevitably — the jig is up and the men are arrested.

The movie zeroes in on Greville as he endures his gulag misery, the unbearable cold, the endless questioning, the terrible food. The movie almost captures the smell of the gray, dank cell he occupies.

Cumberbatch also undergoes an incredible physical transformation, losing his slicked-back hair and mustache for a prisoner’s shaved head. He loses weight, and becomes wiry under his loose skin. He also becomes weaker. In one powerful, climactic moment, he can barely lift his head.

Yet Greville remains stolid. After eating many pale, thin-looking bowls of soup, he is presented with a fantastic party platter of meats and cheeses, if he’ll only sign a confession. He doesn’t even look at the food… only at the paper as he pushes it away.

All of this has the makings of a terrific movie, and yet “The Courier” is only just a pretty good one.

This is the second feature by director Dominic Cooke, whose “On Chesil Beach” from 2018 suffered from some of the same shortcomings.

Cooke seems strong with actors and dialogue, and is good at picking material, but he can’t quite visualize things in a dynamic way. He has improved at least a little bit here, providing many interesting backdrops for Greville and Alex’s meetings — a subway, the ballet, etc. — rather than just bland room after room.

And the prison sequences are chilly and steel-gray colored without being oppressive or punishing. But the standard setups — back and forth conversations between characters — are very simply functional, and their rhythms extend to the sluggish side. Both of Cooke’s films feel too long.

Another problem — typically, with movies like this — are the female characters. For her mantlepiece full of Emmys, Brosnahan has surprisingly little to do here, other than to sit in rooms and look astonished that more is not being done about this situation.

And Buckley, who deserved an Oscar nomination for her work in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” is here nothing more than the wife who supports her husband.

This is made worse by the fact that Sheila doesn’t know anything about Greville’s top-secret mission, and doesn’t understand the pressure he feels.

Narrowing its focus on Greville and Alex, though, “The Courier” gains power, both in the men’s friendship and shared beliefs, but also in the heroic reality of what they accomplished, how they might have saved the world.

On the one hand, this is indeed a creaky old period piece, but on the other hand, it offers a relevant, timely message about not listening to hate-spewing maniacs and reaching out across the aisle to try to work together.

REVIEW

The Courier

★★★

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley

Written by: Tom O’Connor

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

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