A Film and TV Review by Tim Riley


“THE COURIER” RATED PG-13 Based on a true story that is ultimately more nuanced than what can be jammed into a film just shy of two hours, “The Courier” is an engrossing spy tale set in the early 1960s in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following on last week’s column about the “Spy City” series also set in roughly the same era, there’s something terribly gratifying about a suspenseful and propulsive spy thriller that taps into dramatic tension in the John Le Carre tone rather than excessive action stunts. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Greville Wynne is an ordinary British engineer and salesman representing manufacturers who travels frequently to Eastern European nations peddling his products and attending trade conferences.

Wynne’s globetrotting to the East comes to the attention of top operatives in MI6 and the CIA, respectively Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), who think his talent for wining and dining clients makes for the perfect cover. What the spooks have in mind for Wynne, without the benefit of any training in spycraft, is to assume the role of a courier to connect with a Russian colonel in the GRU, the military intelligence service, who wants to pass along intel to avert a looming nuclear showdown. The experienced Russian agent is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a patriot who finds himself conflicted over the bellicose and erratic nature of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that has him worried the world is on the brink of annihilation.  On a first lunch meeting with Penkovsky, Wynne is asked if he can hold his alcohol, and the Brit replies “It’s my one true gift.”  Wynne is a natural at boozing and losing golf games to clients on purpose.

A nice relationship develops between the two men, including frequent dinners, trips to the Bolshoi ballet, and social gatherings that include their wives and children. But not all is well for Wynne on the home front. Wynne’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of his repeated trips to Moscow, wary that he may be unfaithful.  That he’s sworn to secrecy prevents him from reassuring his wife of his marital fidelity. Even though Wynne is only assigned to bring back envelopes to London, a palpable sense of danger in Moscow is omnipresent and eventually, the story takes a darker and more desperate turn.

We already know that Cumberbatch has the talent to capture the everyman quality of an unassuming salesman, but the real treat is Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, whose expressions and glances relay more powerful emotions than most actors convey through words and actions. “The Courier” is a stylish period piece and a cerebral exercise of historical significance that’s worth watching to remember the terror and horrors of the authoritarian nature of communism.      

PBS PREVIEW There appears to be some interest in the lives of British royalty, or maybe it’s just the tabloid fodder of Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Sussex being in the news for ingratitude or whatever. PBS is here to satiate your possible curiosity with its summer series of “Lucy Worsley’s Royal Myths & Secrets,” a travelogue across Britain and Europe visiting incredible locations where Royal history was made.  In beautiful palaces and castles and on dramatic battlefields, Worsley investigates how Royal history is a mixture of facts, exaggeration, manipulation, and mythology.  The first episode will explore how Queen Elizabeth I’s iconic warrior image shaped British national identity.

Put me down for the episode about the doomed Queen Marie Antoinette, who was notorious for her profligacy and love of fine clothes and parties.  Worsley explores the famous myth of whether the last queen before the French Revolution uttered the phrase “Let them eat cake.” Author of the hit debut novel “The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan’s seminal work was a commercial and critical success, and in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on May 3rd, American Masters presents “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.” An intimate portrait of the groundbreaking author Amy Tan interweaves archival imagery, including home movies and personal photographs, animation, and original interviews to tell an inspiring story of the writer’s life and career. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Tan opens up with remarkable frankness about traumas she’s faced in her life and how writing helped her heal.  The film traces her meteoric rise from the point she picked up fiction writing as a mental break from heavy freelance business writing. During the winter press tour, Amy Tan, who appears to want to keep things private, noted that the documentary was a way to take what’s in “The Joy Luck Club,” which is “also very private, but putting it out there the way it was.” Joking about seeing herself “age over 32 years,” Tan also said that the documentary was “uncomfortable at times, and yet it seems like the best way to make sense of my life.”  One fun fact is that Tan performed in a rock band with humorist Dave Barry and other authors.