Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Alternate Title: Ironbark
United Kingdom/USA, 2020. 42, FilmNation Entertainment, SunnyMarch. Screenplay by Tom O’Connor. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Produced by Adam Ackland, Rory Aitken, Ben Browning, Ben Pugh. Music by Abel Korzeniowski. Production Design by Suzie Davies. Costume Design by Keith Madden. Film Editing by Tariq Anwar, Gareth C. Scales.
After a high ranking member of the Kremlin sends a message to the west through the American embassy in Moscow, MI:6 and the CIA team up to find a way to turn the man into a valuable asset in their efforts to win the Cold War. Nuclear warfare has reached a point of technological sophistication that frightens the whole planet, with everyone wondering who will strike first, and Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) considers himself a dedicated Soviet but believes that Khrushchev is an unstable madman and not one to be trusted with this much power. British agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and American high level operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) need someone undetectable to go across enemy lines and bring information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal back, and they decide that commerce is the way to do it. They find the perfect candidate in Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a prosperous businessman whom they convince to go into Russia and set up trade opportunities with Penkovsky as his partner, then bring back hidden envelopes and microfilms with each return. Wynne accepts the position and quickly gets good at it, though it wreaks havoc on his home life with his wife (Jessie Buckley), who believes he is having an affair. As time progresses and the trips he takes become numerous, a bond is formed between the two men that serves them well when the Russian authorities begin to sniff out their suspicious behaviour. A fascinating, at times devastating true story is given chilly treatment by director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor, who paint the experience by numbers and never allow for any excess of excitement to liven up the proceedings. There’s a beautiful exactitude to the way the period is recreated, you get the impression that every table has been set with a great deal of concern for accuracy, but that careful precision also stifles any emotional possibilities in a potentially thrilling story. This is most inconvenient in the conclusion when the relationship between the two main characters is supposed to pay off and, thanks to the fact that Cumberbatch and Ninidze don’t generate much chemistry (think, by comparison, of the cross-border friendship in a classic like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that is so very moving), the whole experience falls short. The filmmakers are unnecessarily harsh to Buckley’s character, presenting her as an unreasonably jealous shrew who gets her deserved comeuppance in the conclusion, and the lack of sympathy for her is paradigmatic of the lack of humanity going on around her. The political story is put across with a great deal of intelligence and the lack of shameless manipulation is appreciated, but the overemphasis on control leaves the film swathed in a perpetual feeling of dullness.