The Courier


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

"What makes the ensuing story special, besides Cooke’s elegant direction, are the relationships between the characters." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

After hearing that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing a British spy, you might expect a slightly different film than Ironbark. Granted, Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama still contains plenty of suspense and covert operations, but it lacks a traditional hero with suave moves and martial arts skills. Instead, it has Greville Wynn, an English businessman with a wife, son and zero qualifications to be a spy.

He’s the kind of glad-handing salesman who charms his targets by missing easy putts on the golf course and soft-selling over pints at the pub. His recruiter convinces him to join the mission by pointing out that if the job were dangerous, they wouldn’t ask an overweight drinker with no combat experience to do it. The next thing he knows, he’s at the centre of what will become the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The reason they need Wynne is that a high-ranked Russian official (Mirab Ninidze) has signaled to the US government that he wants to share information to help stop a nuclear war. However, it would be too risky if an agent approached him, so they contact the MI6 with the idea of bringing in a businessman who would naturally make contact with the asset if he were doing business with the USSR.

The businessman in question isn’t enthused about the proposition, seeing as he has a wife (Jessie Buckley) and son and isn’t in the habit of risking his life. However, after getting hit with the prospect of everyone dying, he reconsiders and begins a life of secret hand-offs and document exchanges.

What makes the ensuing story special, besides Cooke’s elegant direction, are the relationships between the characters. Tom O’Connor’s screenplay can be funny and charming at one moment, and devastating in another. Cumberbatch and Ninidze build a rapport with each other, as informant and contact gain a mutual respect for each other’s sacrifices. Buckley is effective as the wife who senses her husband is misleading her, but imagines it has more to do with another woman than nuclear missiles. Even the CIA and MI6 contacts (Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright) are deeper than mere plot conduits, as they must quietly consider the ramifications of their decisions.

And in the end, Ironbark is as much about the consequences our actions have as it is about sneaking around with a spy camera and stealing documents. It reminds us that bravery comes with serious risks, and risks by nature have a chance of failure. No matter how suave a spy may be, there’s no way around that.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2020
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The true story of a British businessman unwittingly recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. Forming an unlikely partnership with a Soviet officer hoping to prevent a nuclear confrontation, the two men work together to provide the crucial intelligence used to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Director: Dominic Cooke

Writer: Tom O'Connor

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley

Year: 2020

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: UK


Sundance 2020

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