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Rachel Brosnahan in Dominic Cooke's The Courier.Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

  • The Courier
  • Directed by Dominic Cooke
  • Written by Tom O’Connor
  • Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze and Rachel Brosnahan
  • Classification PG; 112 minutes

Critic’s Pick

Admit it: After a year of looking over your shoulder any time someone dared cough, you could use a good, old-fashioned Cold War thriller. A throwback to a simpler time when countrymen found strength in each other’s courage and resolve, and the only thing we had to fear was ... um ... the threat of worldwide nuclear destruction.

Merab Ninidze, left, plays the role of a Soviet intelligence official and Benedict Cumberbatch as a British businessman in The Courier.Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

Anyway, trust me: There are immense, leisurely pleasures to be found in The Courier, which presents a spy-versus-spy drama in a familiar way. Which is fine: So long as you’re not expecting subversion or surprise, you can gently sink yourself into director Dominic Cooke’s intentionally, pleasantly lukewarm waters and come out the other side refreshed and squeaky-clean.

Telling a little-known slice of history, The Courier focuses on the relationship between British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Soviet intelligence official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who together helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though Wynne is more comfortable downing drinks than deciphering code.

Well-read audiences, the kind who will pick up any dog-eared copy of John le Carré (or the many le Carré-lite imitators) from the ground, already know the narrative beats: hushed conversations, slow walks down dark streets, indifferent British poohbahs, brutal Soviet higher-ups, etc. But there is a distinct pleasure in watching Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor know exactly how a genre works, and then refuse to fix it.

Jessie Buckley in The Courier.Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

What’s more, Cumberbatch and Ninidze find genuine chemistry with one another, so much so that it’s a drag whenever each character darts off back home to make meaningless small talk with their families (including Jessie Buckley on the British side). And once the story takes a genuinely dark and stark turn, the risks that both Wynne and Penkovsky took become that much more compelling, and affecting.

It is only a shame, then, that somewhere along the way between its Sundance 2020 premiere and its general release today, the film lost its original title, Ironbark (which was Penkovsky’s code-name), and settled on the blandly generic, and somewhat difficult-to-Google, name The Courier. But perhaps Cooke’s aim is to make spies out of us all.

The Courier will be available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes, starting April 16.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.