At The Movies: Benedict Cumberbatch shines in spy drama The Courier

A still from the film The Courier starring Benedict Cumberbatch. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

SINGAPORE - The movies reviewed this week are spy drama The Courier and pandemic anthology The Year Of The Everlasting Storm.

The Courier (PG13)

112 minutes, opens Oct 21, 3 stars

This spy thriller is formed from one of the more interesting true stories of the Cold War, about a time when Western intelligence roped a business executive into performing a dangerous sideline.

British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels frequently to Eastern Europe for business. Since this is the early 1960s, he belongs to a small group of Westerners who can meet with Eastern Bloc officials without arousing the suspicion of the Soviet secret police. American and British spy agencies, sensing an opportunity, recruit him as a courier, to pass messages between them and Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky (Georgian actor Merab Ninidze).

Much of the film is skilfully rendered, if repetitive, personal and political context. The relationship between Cumberbatch's amateur spy and Ninidze's Penkovsky, as well the tensions between the Americans and Russians over the threats of global annihilation, are covered in detail.

There is some spycraft here, but director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) puts an emphasis on revealing the humans behind the stoic facades. Wynne grapples with living a double life, hiding his activities from his increasingly suspicious wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), while Penkovsky tries to keep his family reassured, despite knowing that he is walking on thin ice.

Cumberbatch and Ninidze turn in great performances as the nervous amateur and steely veteran. Ninidze, in particular, can load a worried glance with a page's worth of dialogue about impending doom. Their efforts, however, cannot quite fill the gaps left in their character development, nor correct the story sag that hits the middle section.

The Year of the Everlasting Storm (NC16)

121 minutes, opens Oct 21, 3 stars

American production and distribution company Neon - the people behind the release of festival favourites such as the biopic I, Tonya (2017), and Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite (2019) - believes in the lemons-into-lemonade rule of life. Last year, responding to the slowdown in film production around the world, they invited seven film-makers to contribute a short film to this collection using stripped-down, Covid-safe techniques.

Neon's production notes do not state that creators were asked to address the pandemic, so if the films address that idea - and several of them do - it is because it was a fact of life just before and during production.

Take Singaporean film-maker Anthony Chen's work, scripted social drama The Break Away, for example. One of the better works in this set - an opinion, believe it or not, unswayed by patriotism - it is a diary of a young Chinese couple with a toddler during lockdown, expressed in Chen's realist style.

A still from the short film The Break Away, directed by Anthony Chen, starring (from left) Zhou Dongyu, Zhang Yanbo and Zhang Yu. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE/NEON

The couple, played by Zhou Dongyu and Zhang Yu, find that the grind of work and childcare, carried out in the confines of their apartment, exacts a mental toll as days turn into weeks. Chen reveals their plight through vignettes, a couple of them shown with surprising frankness. That honesty makes the couple relatable and worthy of sympathy - they represent all of us and if they can make it, maybe we can too.

The rest of the films are a mixed bag, both in style and in quality.

David Lowery (The Green Knight, 2021) turns in Dig Up My Darling, a single-person road movie which aspires to the sublime, but, in a rare miss for the talented American film-maker, stays earthbound.

Celebrated Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi contributes Life, a documentary about his days spent quarantined in the enviously warm embrace of his multi-generation family, with pet iguana Iggy playing a major role. The premise is ridiculously simple - take out your phone and film family members as they chat - but when your family is as expressive and poetic as Panahi's, most of your job is done for you.

Tokyo Revengers (PG13)

Tokyo Revengers is based on a popular manga of the same name. PHOTO: ENCORE FILMS

121 minutes, opens Oct 21, not reviewed

Fantasy and crime action meet in this live-action adaptation of the popular manga of the same name. An aimless young man Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) meets with sudden death, only to find himself waking up 10 years in the past. Armed with foreknowledge about brutal murders that will happen to his school friends, he lays plans to change the future.

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