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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Courier, Review: Delivers on time

The Courier, Review: Delivers on time

A spy story with no fights, no gadgets, agents who neither carry guns nor seduce each other, The Courier is a hark-back to the genre that can be traced at least to deglamourised espionage outings like The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, way back in the 60s. It’s not positioned as a competitor for the James Bond or Mission Impossible series, or their spin-offs, and is, in fact, based on a true story. Unwavering focus on the plot, and all round competence, both on screen and behind it, make the film watchable, even commendable.

A salesman, who puts up the pretence of wielding considerable influence in East European countries during the beginnings of the cold war between America and the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in the times of American President John F. Kennedy and the USSR President Nikita Khrushchev, is recruited by the American CIA and the British MI6 to act as a conduit between a highly-placed USSR scientist peacenik and the West. Greville Wynne is married and has a young son, circumstances that make him say no to the proposal. But it is 1960, when the USSR is planning to move missiles to Cuba, in America’s backyard, to assert its supremacy as a nuclear power. America is reluctant to take any action in the matter as its spy in USSR, one Popov, has been caught, and it wants to lie low. Wynne is British, and is short-listed by the MI6, at the behest of the CIA, for his credentials, which will raise no suspicions. When the importance of the mission is explained to Wynne, he is finally convinced.

Oleg Penkovsky, the USSR man Wynne is to be in touch with, has initiated this move himself, at great risk. Wynne, who had been trading with some East European countries but never with the Soviet Union, starts visiting the country and establishes himself as a go-between for Soviet businessmen and Western factories, for technology based products, which are in good demand, in spite of the building tension between the USSR and the West. Soon, he manages to contact, meet and befriend Oleg, who likes to be called Alex, and a lot of classified information and documents provided by Penkovsky are sent through him to the American and British Intelligence. Through these documents, America learns about the Soviet Union’s plans to plant missiles in Cuba, a move they justify by citing the fact that America has positioned missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union. Though the two are extra careful, espionage is a high-risk activity, and either or both could lose their lives, is discovered. Wynne is assured that he will be pulled out if his ‘hirers’ have reason to believe his life is at risk, and Oleg and his family, a pregnant wife and a young daughter, will be allowed to defect to the United States, at the opportune moment.

Wynne’s story has been written for the screen by Tom O’ Connor, who studied theatre and worked in advertising, before writing The Hitman’s Bodyguard, in 2011. He followed it with Fire with Fire, and The Courier is his third outing. Since it already has all the elements of a dramatic story, this true story would not be too difficult to turn into a screenplay. But, on the other hand, in the hands of a less gifted pen-man, it could drift into boredom and/or a documentary style narrative, which it doesn’t. Though a long film, it never meanders. O’Connor succeeds in portraying the relationships between the characters quite fluently, and the decision to keep the Kennedy (real) and Khrushchev (actor) footage to a bare minimum helps chart the path of the movie with commitment to fact. It appears that not too many liberties have been taken with facts, though the Smithsonian Institute lists facts that prove Wynne to a compulsive liar. O’Connor, nevertheless, succeeds in sifting out the germ of the story and its logical development, relying on several other objective sources, besides Wynne’s own version.

Director Dominic Cooke's feature directorial debut, On Chesil Beach, starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and was chosen by Variety as one of the ten best films shown there. A CBE, Cooke is from theatre and has directed and written some acclaimed productions. This back-ground helps in getting precise and immersed performances from all his actors. Having a good grasp over the film medium too, he never gets theatrics in the way of his story-telling. Audiences will find the goings-on easy to grasp (except for a bit in the second half, which seems too rushed to decode), a quality that some realistic spy movies lack, and the characters are minutely defined, without wasting too much footage. Casting is a forté, and the actors really get under the skin of their characters, with every performer getting his /her due of screen time and dialogue. Of course, the film could have been a little more exciting and the prison scenes could have been crisper. Several scenes involving male nudity are handled with dignity. The scene where Greville and Oleg go to watch the opera is very cleverly devised.

With an actor like Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, The Imitation Game), who was part of the cast of another realistic spy movie, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, playing the lead, you already have an ace in your pack. Incidentally, both Cumberbatch and O’Connor are Executive Producers on the film. His reactions on being approached to take on the assignment, his scenes with his wife and son and his relationship with Oleg, all are put across with consummate artistry. Rachel Brosnahan (Beautiful Creatures, Louder Than Bombs, The Finest Hours, Patriots Day) as Emily Donovan, of the CIA, uses the accent to good effect and comes across as a down-to-earth intelligence agent, with her heart in the right place. As Sheila Wynne, Jessie Buckley (Beast, Wild Rose, Judy, Dolittle) conveys a lot within the confines of the role. Proving equal to the task of standing-up against Cumberbatch, the Georgia (Soviet Union) born Merab Ninidze acquits himself with grace and finesse. As the MI6 officer, Dickie Franks, Angus Wright is highly convincing. Also in the cast are Kirill Pirogov as Gribanov, Keir Hills as Andrew Wynne (Greville’s lookalike son), Jonathan Harden as Leonard, Aleksandr Kotjakovs as Soviet Officer and Olga Koch as Irisa.

Music by Abel Korzeniowski is apt but repetitive, like a theme. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt deserves special mention for his slow movements that metamorphose into unusual  close-ups, as well as some short, top angle shots. Editing by Tariq Anwar and Gareth C. Scales is top-rate.

If you liked the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy series and A Bridge of Spies, there are good chances you will enjoy The Courier too.

Lastly, the actor playing Nikita Khrushchev, Vladimir Chuprikov, is made to look remarkably like the real Khrushchev, but his exposure is kept to a minimum, brought-in only for effect. This package is a little low on excitement and thrills, but The Courier does deliver on time.

Rating: ***      



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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