If you’ve never heard about the exploits of the British Cold War spy Greville Maynard Wynne, you’re not alone. Even Dominic Cooke, the director of the new fact-based film about Wynne’s spy exploits, had never heard of Wynne before the script for “The Courier” came his way.
“It was interesting that Brits over a certain age knew who he was, but anyone below the age of sixty-five could not recall the case in a lot of detail,” Cooke told me this week. “I think there were reasons he was [elided from] the history books. That’s an interesting story, in and of itself.”
Wynne, a civilian, was recruited by MI6 in the early sixties to make contact with a Soviet turncoat named Oleg Penkovsky. During his business trips to the communist nation, Wynne acted as courier, spiriting away documents of Soviet secrets Penkovsky handed him. In “The Courier,” Wynne is portrayed by Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch and Penkovsky by Russian actor Merab Ninidze.
The film shows not only the very real dangers the two men faced in smuggling state secrets to London, but how their double lives undermined their relationship with their families.
“Tom brought a compassion and a warmth which really drew me to the project,” Cooke said of the script by Tom O’Connor (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”). “You didn’t [normally] really get to see what happens in someone’s personal lives when they have to hide everything from their loved ones.”
Indeed, Cooke said that most spy movies, particularly those from Great Britain, present a coldness and singular focus on the mission at hand at the expense of all else. Not so in “The Courier.”
“Tom’s story has in it a cardinal transformation and a very profound friendship. I felt the personal costs of these [spying] activities” on their daily lives, Cooke said of his two heroes.
Cooke, who has a background in theater, has been to both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia several times in his life, including when he was studying history at university and staging plays there. But given that Penkovsky is still viewed unfavorably in contemporary Russia, the production opted to film in Prague as a stand-in for Cold War-era Moscow.
“I love the city. The people we worked with were just fantastic,” Cooke said of shooting in the Czech capital, which has a great deal of Soviet-era architecture still standing (he frequently ran into many British actors filming other movies in Prague.)
One of the most harrowing scenes in “The Courier” sees Wynne being tortured by the Soviets to cough up information. Wynne was imprisoned for over a year before he was swapped by the British for a captured Soviet spy. To showcase his diminished state upon release, the production stopped for three months so that Cumberbatch, working with a trainer and nutritionist, could become as gaunt as Wynne had been when let out of jail.
“The real Greville Wynne was actually quite chunky before he went to prison,” Cooke relates, adding that he and Cumberbatch decided early on to have the actor simulate Wynne’s horrific weight lost in captivity. “[Cumberbatch] was vegan at that point and he worked out all the time, so he’s [already] pretty slight these days,” Cooke said of his leading man. “So we had to ‘pack’ him most of the movie just to make him not look too thin.”
Cooke felt it was important to show the effects being in a Soviet prison had not only on Wynne’s physique but his psyche after he was sent home to England. This is in keeping with Cooke’s desire to show how spycraft affects not only the secret agent but his family—who in this case hadn’t seen Wynne in some time when he returned to the United Kingdom.
“I don’t know if his son is still alive, but I do know they were estranged” after the events portrayed in the film, Cooke said of Wynne’s son. Cooke added he hasn’t personally had any contact with any of Wynne’s relatives or descendents, but several of Wynne’s coworkers—both in civilian and secret life—have since reached out to him.
“A friend [of Wynne’s] at the British embassy had been with him the day before he went back to [retrieve] Penkovsky,” Cooke said. “He described how kind of quiet and strange [Wynne] had been that day.”
Cooke and Co. first premiered “The Courier” at Sundance last January. Things went quiet thanks to covid, but now over a year later, it will finally play on some U.S. screens this weekend, with UK theaters following suit in May.
“I think Roadside [Pictures] has been brilliant, because they stuck it out and wanted to get it into cinemas,” Cooke said of the film’s distributor. “There’s something unique about the big screen, and we made this with that very much in mind. Whilst the delay has been lengthy, I’m really pleased with it getting a chance to be in cinemas.”
Cooke said that after a year of people being mostly confined to their homes, getting out to movie theaters for a story that deals with loyalty and bravery will be a balm for our collective raw nerves.
The filmmaker also hopes that audiences will take away what amazingly brave two men were Wynne and Penkovsky, who risked it all to spy for the West at an incredibly tense time.
“Change starts with heroic actions [taken] by everyday people,” Cooke said. “Greville Wynne didn’t know what he was capable of until he was put in that position. He ended up making some genuinely heroic choices, and that’s an amazing example to all of us. And I hope that’s what people will think about as they leave.”
“The Courier” will be in select theaters today.