Photo: ‘The Courier’/Lionsgate
‘The Courier’ -Thoughts on Navalny
In 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned not once but twice with the nerve agent Novichok. His would-be assassins first slipped poison in Navalny’s tea. Months later, as Navalny recuperated in Germany, they put the poison in his underwear. Navalny, convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible, managed to draw out a confession from one of the men involved in the operation by calling the man from a spoofed phone number and pretending to be his superior performing a debriefing. Suffice to say, Navalny is a man on a mission.
Despite these multiple attempts against his life, Navalny returned to Russia in January of this year to face trial. Photographed on his return flight through the slit between the seats, Navalny can be seen watching ‘Rick and Morty’ with his wife. There is something memetically fascinating about the idea that Navalny, facing down the gulag or worse, found comfort in the nihilistic defiance of Rick Sanchez. Upon landing, Navalny was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment.
This led to the largest protests Russia has seen since 2013, with protestors facing subzero temperatures to gather outside in support of Navalny. In a speech he gave at his appeal trial, Navalny likened Putin to Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort and quoted Rick Sanchez, saying, “to live is to risk it all. If you don’t risk, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.”
Since the Cold War, so much has changed and yet so much remains the same. ‘The Courier’, the new film by director Dominic Cooke, takes place at a time when humans being reduced to drifting molecules was not simply figurative rhetoric but considered to be the very possible outcome of the Mutually Assured Destruction resulting from a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the USSR.
Chronicling events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film follows Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer who, objecting to the saber-rattling of Nikolai Khrushchev, began to leak the USSR’s nuclear secrets to the West. In order to facilitate Penkovsky’s assistance without arousing Soviet suspicion, MI6 recruited unassuming businessman Greville Wynne to travel to the USSR to deliver secret messages.
While Greville Wynne–played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a vulnerable performance that strips him of his ‘Sherlock’ cleverness and his ‘Dr. Strange’ cockiness–gets top billing, the film’s greatest hero is absolutely Oleg Penkovsky. While Wynne amiably and earnestly bumbles his way through the early chapters of his spy career, occasionally sweating bullets in between vodka toasts and caviar on toast but always returning safely home to London, Penkovsky faces constant danger. Early in the film, he is gathered with other officers to bear witness to the unceremonious execution of convicted spy Major Popov. Penkovsky truly ‘risks it all’ to prevent what he believes could very well be World War 3. It’s worth noting that before marketing meddling the film bore the title ‘Ironbark’–Penkovsky’s codename.
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Spies Like Us
In a commendable move, Penkovsky is played not by a Brit speaking English with a thick accent, but by bonafide USSR-born actor Merab Ninidze. Russian Cinema stars are somewhat rare in films produced in English-speaking countries, but to have a foreigner portray one of the country’s greatest heroes would be disrespectful. Ninidze, who had a bit part in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’ and appeared in a few UK and US television series, is phenomenal here in a marquee role.
With a face and demeanor reminiscent of a younger Bruno Ganz, Ninidze subtly conveys notes of despair and distress behind the poker face of a loyal Communist Party member. Penkovsky’s emotional journey is to rediscover a sense of fraternity through his unlikely friendship with Wynne, and it is a journey as delicate and wondrous to behold as the ballet to which Penkovsky proudly brings his new friend. Watching the two men watch ‘Swan Lake’ as they contemplate losing everything they hold dear is one of the film’s bravura moments.
While less emotionally transcendent than Ninidze, Cumberbatch does well with the film’s subtle script–it’s much more akin to John Le Carre than James Bond. When we meet Wynne, he is a relatively carefree British toff, self-satisfied in his abilities to cajole and charm his clients into opening their pocketbooks. While he’s well-off, his homelife is still recalibrating after his admission to his wife of an extramarital affair. Invited to lunch by recruiters, he’s starstruck to realize they’re spies, only to turn indignant when they frame his participation in their scheme as a matter of saving the world. Eventually, it’s Penkovsky’s charisma that lures Wynne into the world of espionage. Cumberbatch plays the newly-minted spy just shy of absurd, bobbing to the sounds of a boisterous brass band as he traverses the streets of Moscow.
East Meets West
The film is a bit uneven at times, perhaps hewing too close to authenticity without taking engagement into account. Then again, real life is a bit uneven at times. The film’s somewhat jaunty opening scenes eventually get replaced with dreary prison sequences, meaning Cumberbatch’s character goes from being out of the loop to being in lockdown. Cumberbatch’s character doesn’t get much agency, but the film does provide insight into what political prisoners really go through, even to this day.
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Cumberbatch and Ninidze’s blossoming friendship is the beating heart of the film but the rest of the ensemble, while excellent, doesn’t get enough to do. Jessie Buckley, who wowed in ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ and ‘Chernobyl’, is saddled with the part of Wynne’s once-scorned wife, meaning she sits on the sidelines drinking cocktails in the production’s well-designed 60’s wardrobe and decor. Rachel Brosnahan, the star of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ and ‘I’m Your Woman’, delivers thrills with a stirring monologue and a chase sequence, but the character is thinly sketched. Character actors Angus Wright and Zeljko Ivanek fill out their minor roles, but Anton Lesser, who recently stole scenes in ‘The Crown’ and ‘Game of Thrones’, is underutilized in a glorified cameo.
Perhaps had this been conceived as a miniseries like ‘Chernobyl’ these characters could have been more fleshed out. The film does continue its trend of casting Russian actors in its smaller roles, with impressive turns from Kirill Pirogov, Mariya Mironova, and Vladimir Chuprikov. It’s perhaps the most heartening thing about the film, seeing actors from East and West sharing the screen. Invited to family dinner at Wynne’s house, Penkovsky remarks of their breaking bread, “Maybe we’re only two people but this is how things change.” Maybe ‘The Courier’ is only a small film, but this is how things change.
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