Producers: Adam Ackland, Ben Browning, Ben Pugh and Rory Aitken   Director: Dominic Cooke   Screenplay: Tom O’Connor   Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Željko Ivanek, Kirill Pirogov, Anton Lesser, Maria Mironova, Vladimir Chuprikov and Keir Hills Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate

Grade: B

Though it fiddles with the historical record for dramatic effect, simplifying some matters and creating at least one important composite character, this fact-based Cold War espionage tale is generally absorbing, though relatively low-key.  Originally titled “Ironbark,” the codename for either Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet source played by Merab Ninidze, or the material he handed over to the West, it deals with an aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis not as well known as others.

That has to do with the relationship between Penkovsky, a trade official in the Kremlin, and Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman involved in the sale of machine parts. 

In this telling, Penkovsky had grown concerned that the impulsiveness of Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) might lead to a nuclear confrontation with the United States, and so made cautious contact with Britain’s MI6 through some English students.  That led British spymaster Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan)—an admittedly composite character—to recruit Wynne, who had already done business with communist governments in Eastern Europe, to go to Moscow to cultivate sales there and become their connection with Penkovsky.

The two men develop a rapport and grow protective of one another.  When Penkovsky visits England, for example, Wynne takes him home for dinner with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hills), and Penkovsky brings Andrew a gift.  In turn Penkovsky introduces Wynne to his wife Vera (Maria Mironova) and daughter, though he explains that he can’t invite the foreigner to their apartment. 

Penkovsky’s leaks prove valuable in informing the West about Soviet missile activity in Cuba, paving the way for swift action when photos confirm it in the fall of 1962.  But they also provoke suspicions in the KGB, which are supported by Soviet moles in Western intelligence agencies.  That leads a KGB man (Kirill Pirogov) to set a trap that results in the arrest of both men even as the crisis is unfolding, despite a last-minute attempt by the CIA and MI6 to engineer an escape plan for the Russian.  Penkovsky was tried for treason and executed the following year. 

The last act of “The Courier” is a harrowing depiction of the eighteen months that Wynne, convicted by the Soviets on espionage charges, spent in Lubyanka Prison before his release in 1964 in a swap for a Russian agent recently unmasked in Britain.

One can point out numerous ways in which screenwriter Tom O’Connor, apparently working from both Wynne’s memoirs and other works that question his account, has altered the known facts or speculated about how things actually happened in order to fashion an exciting tale within the parameters of a two-hour feature.  (Penkovsky’s motives remain a subject of debate, for example, but here he’s presented simply as a noble figure; and there’s doubt about when Wynne was recruited by MI6.) 

But with the caveat that it shouldn’t be taken as gospel in each and every detail—something that, after all, can be said of any docu-drama ever made—the result is, by and large, faithful to the arc of the relationship that developed between the two, and the significance of the materials that the Russian provided to the West; they were integral to U.S. understanding of what the Soviets were doing in Cuba, and so to the response adopted by the Kennedy administration.

The film does a reasonably good job of laying this all out even for viewers who might be only cursorily acquainted with the diplomatic and military dance in which the Cold War adversaries engaged in October, 1962, not only through its dramatic recreation of events but through the archival footage that director Dominic Cooke has inserted to provide historical context.

It benefits enormously from the two lead performances.  Cumberbatch is at his best, which is saying a good deal; he expertly conveys his character’s gradual transformation from reluctance to commitment, and appears genuinely brutalized during Wynne’s confinement in the notorious Moscow prison.  Georgia-born Ninidze matches him with a subtle turn as the conflicted official whose allegiance to the Soviet regime was challenged by what he saw as a higher responsibility.  The remaining cast falls definitely into supporting territory.  Wright and Anton Lesser have some good moments as the MI6 bigwigs who recruit Wynne, and Pirogov is smoothly nasty as their KGB counterpart. 

But Brosnahan suffers from her stock character, and Buckley hasn’t enough screen time to flesh out the role of Wynne’s wife, who fears that her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are cover for a repetition of his earlier infidelity.  (In its closing credits—which include archival footage of the actual Wynne speaking to reporters after his return from captivity—the film discreetly omits mention of the fact that Wynne’s wife divorced him shortly after his release, nor does it refer to the trauma he suffered for the rest of his life.)

Technically the film, shot in England and Prague, is excellent, with Suzie Davies’ production design and Keith Madden’s costumes achieving a solid “Masterpiece Theatre”-style period look and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography creating a mood of quiet menace.  Some might complain that Tariq Anwar and Gareth C. Scales’ editing lacks energy, but that’s of a piece with Cooke’s avoidance of conventional genre thrills, and Abel Korzeniowski’s score is fine—it doesn’t actually use the famous Shostakovich waltz Kubrick did in “Eyes Wide Shut” during the Russian scenes, but gets as close to it as one can imagine.

If you’re looking for a James Bond spy thriller, “The Courier” will disappoint.  If for something more cerebral and understated will do, however, you should find it an instructive semi-history lesson with a compelling human component.