Benedict Cumberbatch is back in cinemas in the brand new drama film The Courier, which finally arrives on the big screen this week after several pandemic-related delays.
The film sees the Sherlock and Doctor Strange star take on the role of Greville Wynne, a real-life businessman who became something of an unlikely hero during the Cold War – playing a key role in averting the Cuban missile crisis during the early ’60s.
Like most films based on a true story, there are one or two embellishments in the script for dramatic effect but, by and large, The Courier sticks pretty much to facts.
At the centre of the story is Greville Wynne, an unassuming English businessman who had never so much as considered a career as a spy until he was suddenly approached by the British secret service in 1960.
His mission was simple, at least on the surface: he would act as a courier between British intelligence and Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze in the film), a Soviet war hero who had communicated to the West that he wished to defect.
Wynne, who was 41 at the time, fitted the bill precisely because he had no experience of espionage and as such would not arouse suspicion – not to mention the fact that he regularly travelled to the USSR for work purposes anyway (his day job involved representing Western manufacturers in foreign countries).
The first meeting between Wynne and Penkovsky took place in December 1960, and the military documents provided by the Russian appeared to prove he could be trusted, with the pair arranging regular meetings from there on in – and Wynne even inviting Penkovsky to London (the official purpose being that he was teaching him about British industry).
Over the next two years, these exchanges proved increasingly worthwhile, with some crucial information being obtained by the British secret service as a result of the relationship – not least vital evidence exposing President Khruschev’s bluffs about how many weapons the Soviets had in Cuba, which played a key role in averting the Cuban missile crisis.
Unfortunately, by later in 1962 the game was up: Wynne and Penkovsky were both arrested, with the latter’s suspicious behaviour having been noted and monitored by his countrymen. A trial followed, and Penkovsky was sentenced to death, while Wynne was held as a Soviet prisoner until a swap was engineered by British intelligence 18 months later.
Understandably, it was not easy for Wynne to go back to his normal life when he returned to the UK, and indeed he lost a lot of business. Instead, he set about trying to make money from selling his story and wrote two books on the subject, The Man From Moscow (1967) and The Man From Odessa (1981), the publication of which did not go down well with MI6.
Wynne passed away at the age of 70 in 1990 from throat cancer after struggling with alcoholism and depression for years after his brief spying career.
This being a dramatisation, not everything in the film occurs exactly as it was in real life.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the true story is the introduction of Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), who appears as a CIA agent and one of Wynne’s handlers in the film. There was no such person in real life – and indeed Wynne’s handlers were all men – but, according to director Dominic Cooke, he wanted to involve a female agent to pay homage to Janet Chisholm, another British agent involved in the case who does not appear in the film.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, Cooke explained, “She was an extraordinary woman. She was married to a diplomat, living in Moscow, and in the gaps where Wynne wasn’t able to go – because Penkovsky was just taking so much [information] – they would do these drops in apartment hallways and Janet Chisholm would pick them up.”
Another change made for the film concerns the manner of Wynne’s capture by the Soviets: in the movie, he is apprehended while boarding a plane that would take him back to London, but in real life, the arrest was not quite so dramatic.
And, depending on who you believe, there’s a chance that even more of the film is fictional. According to Wynne’s own aforementioned books, he had actually been working for British intelligence long before the Penkovsky affair and had been recruited as early as the Second World War.
While several other accounts have declared this to be a fabrication and have confirmed that Wynne had no previous intelligence experience or training, this contradiction does raise an important point: when dealing with something like espionage, you never quite know how much is 100 per cent factual.