The Courier: a spy movie that isn't, actually, about spies

I just watched Cumberbatch and Mrs Maisel in The Courier, a cold war movie about a UK businessman (Cumberbatch) recruited by MI6 and the CIA to be a courier for intelligence gathered by a high-level GRU (sovient spy agency) agent. He’s a total newb, but willing, and the connection he forms with his contact is interesting on a few levels; they become friends, but also have to appear to be business friends because the Soviets are definitely watching them, and … you know, spy stuff is cool. :)

This movie does a good job of NOT cranking up thriller/suspense dials just for the hell of it. It is pretty good at doing subtle menace (a cigarette-based scene is a standout) that makes everything tense, and generally avoids dumb cliches. Performances are excellent throughout, with Cumberbatch a real standout (and his wife is amazing, too!).

As me to the list of people that enjoyed The Courier. Watched The Spot Who Came In From The Cold recently after re-reading the novel. Forgot how much I enjoyed both of those.


I think I have to leave that autocorrect.

Obviously spy who came in from the cold

What struck me about The Courier – and apologies for appropriating the thread’s title when I moved these posts – is that it’s actually about homosexual relationships in societies that are hostile to homosexuality. The whole dance between Cumberbatch and Ninidze plays out like a kind of courtship. I mean, how many spy movies have two men going to a ballet and being deeply affected like that? And I’m not even making the case that they’re gay, which is subtext if anything. But I am making the case that the story uses the backdrop of the Cold War and the traditions of spycraft as a backdrop for its story about a forbidden relationship between two men. The facade they have to put up, the meaningful glances, the maneuvering with their wives. If that’s not a message about homosexuality in the olden times, I don’t know what is.

In other words, you just watched Brokeback Mountain and didn’t even realize it!

Given this, I was actually okay with how the movie used the Cuban Missile Crisis as a contrived way to imply that the relationship between these two men saved the world from nuclear annihilation. That’s some dramatic license I was willing to allow, especially since it was such a meaningful part of their last meeting. Oleg was ground up by the machinery of the Soviet Union, but the real triumph is that Greville was able to convey to him what they’d accomplished together. They had saved the world, even if they both didn’t make it out alive.

Also, even if Kurylenko can’t sit convincingly on a motorcycle to save her life, Gary Oldman’s eyepatch is badass:


I am confused, how many The Courier movies are there and why?

What’s going on here? If there’s a movie with Rachel Brosnahan in it, then we should be talking about Rachel Brosnahan, and I don’t care who may or may not be sporting an eyepatch.

HANG ON-- if this movie also has Jessie Buckley in it, then I want to talk about THAT ALSO and I don’t care how gay Benedict Cumberbatch is!

Count me as confused!

I watched the Cumberbatch Courier on recommendation of someone in my Pandemic Legacy Season Zero game, and generally liked it except for Brosnahan’s character—the entire CIA could’ve been dropped from the movie with no loss. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ninindze’s family instead, to complement the scenes with Cumberbatch’s.

I think this was the first movie I went to see when things started opening up post-vaccination, and the theaters were scrambling for something, anything new to show. The first half or so was good, but it felt like they were playing up the danger and tension too much early on. And then the collapse of the scheme was somehow too simplistic. In the end it didn’t even feel like a well-spent couple of hours.

(But I can’t read subtext like Tom.)

One of the people I saw the movie with is Russian, and they were incredibly offended at the ending scene. “The KGB would never be so stupid as to put thise two prisoners together and let them exchange information”. Like, I can’t express with words how much of an insult to their whole nation they felt this display of substandard tradecraft was. It was hilarious.

Sorry for the confusion! There are two recent movies called The Courier. One is a forgettable action wanna-be with poor little Olga Kurylenko and Gary Oldman hoping you won’t notice he’s in it. The other is a Cold War spy thriller with Benedict Cumberbatch that has a unique angle on spycraft as an analogue for homosexuality.


To be fair to your Russian friend, that scene was pretty contrived. It exists for the dramatic purpose of allowing closure between the two main characters, and especially redemption for the one who sacrifices himself. But it’s a perfect example of how this is a movie more interested in the relationship between its characters than the procedural details of Cold War espionage.

I agree that it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. But I would also argue the reason to watch The Courier is for the performances. It’s a very “actory” script.


I just watched The Courier on Prime video, and enjoyed it greatly. Cumberbatch is always a treat to watch, and they did a good job keeping things tense without going over the edge into cheesy thriller territory. I agree with @jsnell that the scene with the two prisoners together was dumb, but that didn’t detract from the rest of the movie for me. I don’t agree that the defection scheme collapse was badly done, though. They took one risk too many and got caught, that’s how bad stuff happens when you’re a spy. And I totally think Tom is reading way too much into the homosexual parallels, but hey, I suppose everyone sees something different in art.

I’d love it if they make a movie about actual couriers, the heroes of Covid.

I agree with you. That took me by surprise. My wife and our daughter watched it with me and after reading his review I asked them if they saw those parallels and they did not.

His writing is thought provoking.

I enjoyed the Cumberbatch “The Courier”, but also totally did not see the allegory Tom mentions. I mean guys can enjoy ballet, right? Maybe I’m too dense.But I do recommend people to watch this movie.

Also I’m going to use this as an excuse to recommend a similar if even slower burn spy show called The Sandbaggers made by the BBC during the cold war. I think I learned about it here on QT3, and I much enjoyed it.

Well, sure, but being a guy doesn’t preclude being gay. :)

But, yeah, as a dude who adores opera but not other dudes, I know what you mean. My point isn’t that the characters are gay. I don’t think there’s any evidence for that*. My point is that The Courier is a spy story that focuses on the thrill, danger, and stress of an everyman living a secret life, and part of what it accomplishes with this angle is offering a window on the lives of homosexuals at that time. I’m not even sure I agree that it’s an allegory, because that would diminish the spy story, which is definitely its core identity. Rather, I think it’s all in the subtext. And the thing about subtext is that it doesn’t even have to be intentional! The writer and director** could come to this forum and post that they don’t know the first thing about homosexuality and it wouldn’t change my perception of the movie in the least.

As did I!

They sure don’t make 'em like that anymore.


* although casting Cumberbatch is like putting a question mark on the issue

** an openly gay theater director, so make of that what you will

Regarding The Courier: Now I have seen the subtext, I cannot unsee it. But I neve would have noticed it on my own because perhaps I’m too literal

Example going back to the ballet scenes. I took Russian in high school from a fascinating fellow who had been in military intelligence and studied the USSR extensively. This was in the late 80s, so the height of the cold war. But one of the things he talked about how much emphasis there was on the arts in the Soviet Union, including of course the ballet. To the point there was frankly a cold war competition with the West going on in the arts back then like there was in the Olympics. So I was watching the ballet scene literally while reflecting back on the importance of the arts in the Soviet Union, and that maybe Oleg is showing off the excellence of the Soviet ballet to his rather uncultured western contact (Greville)

Regarding Sandbaggers: Awesome review, I had not seen that before Did you ever finish the series Tom?.

This is the post that turned me on to Sandbaggers back from 2007 so its been kicking around QT3 for awhile.

Is this about the typeface?

I never got past season one. Knowing that it’s going to abruptly end without resolution is a real disincentive for me. :(