In Soviet Russia, secrets keep you

The Courier is a very talky film, I suspect you could mostly follow it with sound turned off.

This commitment to visual storytelling is a product of its storytelling and setting. The film takes place in the early sixties and follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-class, middle aged, British machine parts salesman. A combination of his regular business trips to the Eastern Bloc and generally unassuming nature draw the attention of the CIA and MI6. They have a prized source: high-ranking Soviet military intelligence office, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who is offering them invaluable information on Khrushchev’s nuclear strategy. To protect Penkovsky, rather than using one of their own officers to contact him, the British and American spies turn to Wynne, a self-described “amateur” at espionage and a reluctant one at that. He uses his work trips to Moscow to inconspicuously meet with Penkovsky and bring back troves of secret files.

The social media ads for the Courier have branded it “a slice of James Bond action”. This is borderline false advertising. It lacks any fighting or shooting, is mostly sombre and is decidedly unglamorous. It may be from the same era as Connery’s early outing. However, it is set in the spartan surrounds of Soviet Moscow and a London of beige business suits, white bread sandwiches, gold courses and Powell-Pressburger pronunciations. The focus on human drama and the psychic toll of spying more obviously recalls Le Carré (RIP, legend). However, to my surprise the contemporary writer it most reminded me of was Terence Rattigan: the supreme playwright of stifled emotions and uncomfortable silences.

Part of why this comparison occurred is likely that chunks of the Courier are basically family dramas. Yet the comparison still holds for the scenes set in the Soviet capital. Indeed, especially in them. The emphasis on things unsaid only heightens, when the pressure to avoid speaking openly not only comes from social convention or character flaws, but also the KGB’s listening devices and lip readers. Hence, even though there is plenty of exposition, the more salient a story point is the more likely it is to be shown visually.

We literally see that Penkovsky is deeply enmeshed within the Soviet system. The film opens with him fulsomely applauding a speech celebrating the USSR’s strides in missile technology. We see that amidst the sea of faces in the audience for the Bolshoi, it is Penkovsky’s that Khruschev recognises and with whom he exchanges a nod of recognition. Yet when we see him alone, we witness small signs of his contempt for the system he serves surfacing. Crucially, we can also see how repressive that system is in the incredible caution he shows about before allowing even these subtle lowerings of his mask as a loyal apparatchik. Whilst, this is all eventually conveyed in dialogue between Penkovsky and Wytte, these conversations do not take place until about halfway through the film. By this point, it has already been communicated to the audience much earlier by things we see on screen.

This is a smart approach, which makes use of the excellent cast, that includes not only Cumberbatch and Ninidze, but also Jesse Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Anton Lester. It takes skilled actors to strike the balance between sufficiently minimising the expressions and movements which reveal what their character really thinks and feels to the point they are hidden from the other characters in the scene, yet are still distinctive enough to be what their characters reveal, such that visible to an audience seeing their expressions and movements and gestures in close-up on a 250 m2 screen.

[As an aside on the topic of casting: it was refreshing to see the Soviet characters played by actors from the former Soviet states speaking to each other in Russian, rather than by Anglophone actors delivering English dialogue, whilst affecting somewhat Slavic accents.]

[Yes, I have seen Black Widow. Why do you ask?]

However, for all that I think emphasising visual storytelling was the right decision for the Courier, its execution definitely could have been better. The camera work can lack subtlety and originality. For example, in a scene where Wytte is a passenger in the back of a car being driven from Moscow Airport, his sense of being under oppressive surveillance depicted by him seeing his driver studying him in the rear-view mirror.

There are other weaknesses too. The tension tends to dissipate whenever the plot returns to this side of the Iron Curtain. Hence, it probably would have been a better film if it had centred Penkovsky rather than Wytte. It is also not done any favours by the obvious comparisons in terms of setting and subject to films Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Lives of Others. This company makes the Courier’s otherwise respectable thematic depth, feel underwhelming.

That said it is still an engaging film about an important piece of history performed by a talented cast. The emphasis on letting us see events play out gives it a cinematic edge. Indeed, I would suggest that if you have a story like this one that could be told in a podcast or a book, then making full use of the visuals is a major – perhaps the major – reason to still put it on the big screen.

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