Director – Dominic Cooke – 2020 – UK – Cert. 12a – 112m
The real life story of businessman Greville Wynne who smuggled secrets out of Moscow and helped avert the Cuban missile crisis – out on premium digital Monday, September 27th
The early 1960s. The cold war. High up Kremlin bureaucrat Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is convinced Kruschev wants to start a nuclear war. He has information about this he wants to leak to the West, for which the Soviet state is likely to punish him should they find out, possibly with death. However he has no easy route through which to send the information. He accosts American tourists and tells them to take packages straight to their embassy and then leave the country immediately.
Impressed with the calibre of his leaks, MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by London operatives Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), set about finding the perfect person to to bring his packages back to the West. They meet businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) under the aliases James Dobbin from the Board of Trade and his associate Helen Talbot.
Greville does business by talking to (and drinking with) clients to find out what their businesses need and putting them in touch with other businesses who might be able to work with them, the classic networker. He remembers James from a party some months back and is surprised when the conversation turns to issues of national security. They want a businessman who can go to Moscow and conduct business and, while he’s there, smuggle out Penkovsky’s notes and packages.
The two men bond in Moscow over alcohol and for a while everything goes well. They drink vodka and watch ballet performances in Moscow and sink pints of beer in London. But then the Russians become suspicious. Against James’ advice Greville returns one last time to Moscow to get Penkovsky and his family out. And then he doesn’t come back…
Although some of the characters are fictionalised, not least in the case of Emily since spying was a largely male world back then, Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky actually existed. The story is, in effect, how two men passing secrets from the Kremlin to Moscow averted nuclear war since the thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis, in which Kruschev planted nuclear missiles on Cuban soil where they were in range of America and JFK insisted their presence be treated as an act of war until withdrawn, is the centrepiece of the narrative with Penkovsky’s leaks the element that alerted the Pentagon to the presence of these weapons.
This brings the whole thing down to the level of the Russian in Moscow and the Englishman visiting from London, and the effects on their two families, another factor over which the two men bond. Greville has previously had an affair which his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) knows about, and as he undertakes his spying abroad, she, kept in the dark, suspects him of having a second affair (which he isn’t).
To the film’s credit, this apparent side plot to the main event is given space and explored, with Buckley compelling as the bottled up, British establishment wife. Cumberbatch is excellent as the likeable and ultimately honourable businessman who confesses to being an amateur in the spy world. The final half hour turns into a prison movie, as both men are incarcerated by the KGB although we see very little of what happens to Penkovsky. Greville’s prison experience is pretty brutal, however. You spend the first three quarters of the movie not thinking about what might happen if he got caught then watch what happens in the final half hour after he does. Which is a disarmingly clever way to make a spy movie: hats off to screenwriter Tom O’Connor. Highly recommended.
The Courier is out on premium digital in the UK on Monday, September 27th.
UK cinemas Friday, August 13th
On premium digital Monday, September 27th