Monday, September 13, 2021

The Courier: The Art of Benedict Cumberbatch

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Courier.

Benedict Cumberbatch has one of his best roles in The Courier (available on Amazon Prime) as Greville Wynne, an English salesman of no great accomplishment who agrees to act as the middleman between MI6 and the CIA and a Russian bigwig named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who, in the cause of world peace, offers secrets to Britain and America during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Dominic Cooke’s taut thriller, with a precise, intelligent script by Tom O’Connor, is one of those irresistible stories about a mediocrity who surprises even himself by turning out a hero. And (much as I’ve enjoyed watching him as Doctor Strange) Cumberbatch shows more sides here than any movie has permitted him since he played Alan Turing in the immensely satisfying The Imitation Game – another true-life narrative – seven years ago. It’s admittedly a quirky performance, like one of those deep-cover period-piece portraits Laurence Olivier specialized in during the late phase of his career, when he all but disappeared into his wigs and prosthetics. Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly go in for that kind of physical transformation, but his vocal delivery almost makes a fetish out of Wynne’s Britishisms – his upper-class accent, his narrow vowels and his clipped, practiced aura of professionalism – and he conveys what he’s feeling through tight smiles. Greville’s business ventures take him around the world, but his skills are limited, and he drinks a little too much. The irony of his carrying off the part of a spy is that, according to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), he’s incapable of hiding anything. Some time ago she figured out that he was cheating on her – it was his single marital indiscretion – so when he begins to act secretive again, and his trips to Moscow on an alleged business project take up more and more of his time, she assumes that he’s philandering once again.

In order to pull off the transfer of Russian military secrets, Greville has to seem to develop a companionable relationship with Penkovsky, but the linchpin of the story is that the charade of friendship crosses the line into real friendship. And it’s Wynne’s feelings for Oleg that shift his role from that of a convenient middleman whose participation carries minimal risk to a far more dangerous one. (It would be revealing too much of a suspenseful story to say more.) It’s in the last half hour of the movie that the script makes the heaviest demands on Cumberbatch, and his acting here is in that unconventional mode that characterized his work on Sherlock: cerebral, highly technical, yet full of surprises. For me part of the delight of watching this actor is a kind of stylistic daring that takes him close to the edge of what we’re willing to accept as realism, and there were moments in the late scenes of The Courier that challenged me before I finally threw my doubts in the air and followed him happily into the oddball corners of his performance. It’s hard to think of another actor whose approach to carving out a character can push you as far without coming across as mere showmanship. (I had great fun watching Guy Pearce as the epicurean art forger in The Last Vermeer but I didn’t actually believe anything he did.)

Ninidze (who appeared in the later seasons of Homeland) is tense and moving as Oleg, and the movie benefits from the very different styles of Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan (TV’s Mrs. Maisel) as Greville’s British and American handlers. Wright, a tall, imposing actor with a face that looks like it’s made of granite, is a favorite of mine from my London theatergoing: he played Agamemnon in Robert Icke’s great Oresteia and Claudius in Icke’s Hamlet opposite Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson. And then there’s that Irish chameleon Jessie Buckley, who seems to show up in three or four movies a year and never gives the same performance twice. Her work here doesn’t have the breadth of her performance as the ex-con who pursues a dream as a country singer in Wild Rose, but it may have even more depth.    

For reasons that elude me, several of the spy pictures I’ve found gripping and memorably acted over the last few years haven’t attracted the attention they deserve – A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor (both derived from John le CarrĂ© novels), and more recently Official Secrets. The Courier falls in that category; I hope it lingers.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


No comments:

Post a Comment