The Courier aka Ironbark review – Benedict Cumberbatch heats up solid Cold War drama

The star turns in his most convincing performance for years in this sturdy story of accidental spy Greville Wynne and his role in averting nuclear crisis

There’s an old-fashioned sturdiness to Cold War drama Ironbark, the kind not often seen at Sundance, alluded to by festival director John Cooper before its world premiere. Park City doesn’t often see many period films of this scale he said and its inclusion, arriving like many films here without a distributor, will likely cause a heated auction in the next few days. Because unlike so many of the more muted titles that surround it, Ironbark is an unashamedly commercial film, wearing its tried-and-tested box-ticking formula on its sleeve, for better or worse.

It tells the kind of true story that film-makers crave, the kind that exists on the periphery of a major historical event, switching its focus to a more human angle. Its closest sibling would be Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies while its straightforward, risk-free storytelling also recalls a great many prestige British dramas. At times this threatens to depersonalise the film, to add it to a list of respectfully made yet mostly indistinguishable period potboilers but the story at its centre is such a fascinating one that theatre director Dominic Cooke just about manages to keep its head above water.

It’s the early 60s and tensions between the US and the Soviet Union are threatening to explode into nuclear conflict. CIA operatives are thin on the ground in Moscow and the Americans have grown impatient for intel. Hope then comes from an unlikely source: Soviet military intelligence colonel Oleg aka Alex Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who decides to turn against his country in order to help stop a new war. In need of someone to help courier his leaks yet concerned that someone within the intelligence community would be too conspicuous, CIA official Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) hatch a plan to use a businessman as a cover, one without any experience within the intelligence community. Through an old connection, Dickie comes up with Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who accepts the offer without truly understanding just what he’s let himself in for.

It’s a slow-burning film about the friendship that then blossoms between these two men as they routinely risk their lives for the greater good and there’s an earnest, well-intentioned message about wider political change starting on a smaller scale. It’s a timely concept but the underdeveloped bond between Greville and Alex failed to grab me with quite the force that the film-makers seem to think that it should, given where the plot takes them and us. It’s Ironbark’s key emotional connection but screenwriter Tom O’Connor, whose main credit is cliched action comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, can’t quite force us into investing in them as a pair. It’s a film of broadly sketched relationships, shown also in the specificity-free marriage between Greville and Sheila, played by Jessie Buckley, a wonderful actor most recently underused quite criminally in Dolittle. She has some solid enough emoting to do here but it’s a token wife role, the kind I hope she won’t need to do within a few more years.

While there’s decent work from Brosnahan, a pro now with the era after three seasons of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and some understated character acting from Ninidze, it’s really a showcase for Cumberbatch, also acting as producer. It’s admittedly a role that’s safely within his wheelhouse for the most part but he acquits himself well, transforming from unaware everyman to lowkey hero to something far more harrowing in the final act. He’s not always found his perfect fit in recent years but this feels like the kind of role that could potentially return him to the awards conversation in a film that Oscar voters will lap up, a safe and easily consumed slice of little-known history.

Because it’s the story itself, rather than how it’s told, that slightly elevates Ironbark from its BBC Sunday night company. There’s a whiff of familiarity haunting almost every scene and while it would have been rewarding to see Cooke and O’Conner take a few chances or add some more emotional depth, it’s a satisfying enough watch, best viewed with little investment and low expectations.

  • Ironbark is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced


Benjamin Lee in Park City

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