If you are a regular reader of reviews here at Cineluxe, you’ll know that I have been on a somewhat topsy-turvy cinematic journey lately. In the past ten days, we’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Gattaca, The Ten Commandments, and Nomadland. After all this, my long-suffering wife hit me with, “When can we watch something I want to see?” As a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, The Courier was the perfect solution.
After originally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 under the title Ironbark—the code name given to the Russian agent—the film was slated for a August 2020 US release under its new name. Due to the pandemic, it was delayed
until March 19, 2021, and then received a PVOD release on April 16, where it is currently available as a rental via Kaleidescape and other digital retailers.
I’m always a sucker for films “based on a true story,” and that’s what we have here—a Cold War spying tale based on events leading up to and around the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
High-ranking Russian military intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides to start delivering classified information to the West about Soviet capabilities. Since he is under constant surveillance by the KGB, any contact with traditional espionage assets would blow his cover, so the CIA and MI6 agents working the case decide to recruit a regular salesman, Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), to make contact.
THE COURIER AT A GLANCE
This slow-burn “based on actual events” spy thriller is light on action but big on acting, atmosphere, and tension.
The image quality is mostly terrific, with just some brief moments with soft focus and elevated blacks.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is devoted mainly to delivering dialogue but there are some subtle atmospherics throughout.
Wynne begins by starting business operations in Moscow, where he meets Penkovsky organically through his dealings. After an evening at the ballet, Penkovsky makes arrangements to start delivering materiel to Wynne, who begins shuttling sensitive information out of Moscow and back to his handlers. As the Cold War starts heating up around US/Soviet relations involving Cuba, Penkovsky is eager to get out more information that will help, but the ever-present KGB is always closing in, and it becomes a cat-and-mouse game for Penkovsky and Wynne over how much they can get out before deciding to pull the plug and extract Penkovksky and his family to safety.
The acting, writing, and sets all make for an engaging story, but if you like your spy films laced with action and intrigue of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a slow-burn of a spy film more akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also starred Cumberbatch). In fact, there is but a single gunshot in the film, and it is delivered as a message of what happens to those that decide to become traitors against the State.
Of course, some of the tension is removed from the story as we know how the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, but getting another glimpse into the closed-door intrigue that surrounded this event that likely took mankind to its closest point of all-out nuclear war is always fascinating. Also, having no idea of the events surrounding this story, there was tension in how it plays out with the will they/won’t they rescue attempt.
And the truth of it is, this is probably far more how actual spying is handled. Days and weeks of normalcy as you blend in and carry out your regular routine, interspersed with a few potentially terrifying moments when a bit of information is stolen (photographed in this case) and then exchanged and taken out of the country, while hoping that if something goes wrong, the people on your side will be able to do something to help you.
Cumberbatch seems to have carved a niche for himself in playing the brilliant everyman non-action hero in roles like Alan Turing, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, and Julian Assange, and he inhabits the role of Wynne believably as an affable businessman used to pleasing and impressing clients to get the sale. He even committed himself physically to the role, losing a dramatic amount of weight for the film’s conclusion, helping to portray a very convincing time of suffering. The only other notable actor here is Rachel Brosnahan from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, who plays Wynne’s CIA contact, agent Emily Donovan. Even with lesser-known actors inhabiting most of the roles—sometimes a good thing when recreating actual events—the acting and performances are all convincing and top-notch.
Shot at 4K resolution, there is no mention of the resolution of the digital intermediate, but image quality is almost consistently terrific throughout. I found a few scenes where focus was a bit off and black levels seemed a bit elevated, not quite achieving true black. And there is one scene when they are having a night out on the town in the West End of London that appears to use some older footage that is pretty glaring in its feel compared to the rest of the film.
For the most part, The Courier has clean, sharp images, especially in closeups. We can really see the thick wools, fabrics, and patterns in the suits worn by the British and Russian characters and can clearly see all of the lines and pores in actors’ faces and single strands of hair, or individual beads of sweat that break out across Wynne’s forehead.
I thought some of the best-looking images were during the exterior scenes filmed in England and Prague (which doubled for the USSR). With lots of natural light, you could see the fine detail in the architecture and brick work, or the stones in the streets. A shot at a golf course shows individual blades of grass on the putting green and all of the fine dimples on the era-appropriate Dunlop 65 golf ball.
There are quite a few scenes where actors are filmed sitting in front of a bright window or light, and HDR helps to deliver lots of pop here while still retaining some nice shadow detail. We also get some added pop to the bright white colors on starched English collars.
Sonically, this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack mainly concerns itself with delivering clear, intelligible dialogue, and it does that well. Some scenes
benefit from subtle atmospheric sounds, such as the buzz of lighting in a subway station, birds chirping all around in an outdoor camping scene, kids playing and moving about at a playground, or the roar of a U2’s engines as it flies overhead. It also gives the soundtrack some nice space across the front channels. There aren’t a lot of dynamic audio moments—save that single gunshot—so this certainly won’t be a soundtrack you’ll use to demo your sound system.
For me, The Courier represents the perfect use of a high-quality Kaleidescape rental option. It was a film both my wife and I really wanted to see but not one we’re likely to want to return to over and over, so being given the option to download and enjoy it in the highest quality without requiring a purchase was a great solution. For those looking for a spy film that is more about tension than thrills, The Courier offers a fascinating look into the lives of people who helped change history for the better.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.