by Geoffrey Churchman

Real life espionage at probably the most dangerous period of the Cold War (which lasted from pretty much the end of World War II until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991) is the scenario in this well-crafted drama based on fact.

Most people know about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when the Soviets surreptitiously placed nuclear missiles in America’s ‘backyard’ which led to a brief but very tense period when the world seemed to be facing a nuclear war between the superpowers. Eventually the situation was diffused by a deal in which the Soviets agreed to take their missiles out of Cuba and the U.S. took theirs out of Turkey.

Two years before this, however, the belligerent Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev worries Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who thinks the brinkmanship and arsenal build-up is likely to lead to war and mass destruction. (Although the actual number of functional ICBMs the Soviet Union had was very small — those it paraded in Moscow on May Days were nearly all dummies — the Soviets did not want the Americans to know the U.S. had superior first strike capability.)

So Oleg decides to inform the West of what Kruschev and his minions are up to. Via a couple of American visitors he overhears speaking English he delivers a package to the American Embassy in Moscow which MI6 and the CIA agents in London consider. The task of conveying information from Moscow to London is done through an English businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who regularly visits the Soviet Block capital cities on sales missions and who MI6 and the CIA recruit. The need for meticulous subterfuge and caution is made clear in a scene where a hagged Pyotr Popov, who has been spying for the Americans, is dragged before a gathering of Soviet commanders including Oleg and shot.

All the players know the KGB secret police spies and bugs are omnipresent and no-one deserves to be trusted. This naturally makes for absorbing viewing. But the personal side of things, the wives and children get portrayed too. Greville’s wife understandably thinks her husband is having affairs and relations get strained as he can’t tell her the truth. Visits by both Greville and Oleg to each other’s families do a little but not a lot to help.

But the fears everyone has had about being discovered come to realisation and both Greville and Oleg are thrown into Russian jails, which as in any totalitarian regime, were awful experiences. Both get starved and regularly beaten up. After 7 months, Oleg was executed. Greville spent 18 months in the Lubyanka Prison, before being released in an exchange swap for a Soviet prisoner the British had.

Although some liberties with the actual story are taken, the script, costumes, acting, staging and direction are excellent. The official buildings and hotels the producers chose in Prague look like ones in Moscow. What life in a communist regime is like gets convincingly portrayed.

The Courier (111 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.