The small cameras, the furtive code words whispered into pay phones, the trench-coated figures darting around in the shadows—the trappings of spycraft we see in movies are now so familiar that they come off as anything but clandestine. In fact, however, a spy must blend in with his or her surroundings like a whisper. Benedict Cumberbatch, a star whose chief characteristic is a charming aura of secrecy, could not be cast as a more convincing spy. It’s not that he’s unnoticeable; it’s just that his charisma is more burnished bronze than bright gold. He’s the epitome of discretion, with a touch of savviness thrown in for good measure. His is the face of a man who keeps his secrets tight to his chest and would butt his pants if he could.
Cumberbatch plays a businessman who ferried secrets between Great Britain and the then-Soviet Union during the Cold War in the film The Courier, which is based on a true story. Greville Wynne was a family man who was recruited by MI6 in 1960 to communicate with a member of Russian military intelligence named Oleg Penkovsky—here played by the superb Georgian actor Merab Ninidze—who had offered classified information about his country’s nuclear capabilities, frightened by escalating tensions between the USSR and the West. Despite the fact that Wynne had no idea what information he was carrying, his job was still incredibly risky, and the second half of The Courier tells the story of how he paid the price.