PARK CITY – The life of Greville Wynne really was tailor made for a movie. So much so that it’s surprising it took over 50 years for his heroism to make it to the big screen. But perhaps that’s because it’s a Cold War tale we’ve seen before in one iteration or another. Thankfully, Dominic Cooke’s “Ironbark” is blessed with fantastic turns from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan to up the stakes and make it all feel a bit fresher than it actually is.
In the early 1960’s, Wynne (Cumberbatch) wasn’t anyone notable. Well, at least not to the public at large. Behind the scenes, however, he was used as a courier between the West (MI6 and the CIA specifically) and a high-level Russian mole, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Wynne, it seems, was known for making business deals with Eastern European countries. As tensions heated up between the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) and the United States’ John F. Kennedy, Penkovsky felt it necessary to warn America of Russia’s plans to position nuclear missles in Cuba. Such a move could provoke a nuclear holocaust.
When the U.S. learns that Penkovsky is willing to be an informant, they approach MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Frank) about using one of their agents be his contact. Realizing that the best course of action would be to recruit someone not associated with either government, Franks suggests Wynne as he’d simply appear to be expanding his business interests by traveling to Moscow.
Wynne is flattered by the clandestine request and turns them down initially. CIA operative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) shocks his system, however, by informing him he’d never get his family to safety in four minutes. That’s how much time anyone would have in the UK if Russia launched an attack. Swayed by his fears over increasing tensions he watched played out in the media and Donovan’s brilliant pitch, he agrees to come on board.
Now, it is important to note that years later Wynne insisted he’d been recruited as a spy after WWII and had been active for MI6 for years at this point. That’s never addressed which is probably a mistake as it might have broken the script’s conventions a bit more.
From this point on, even without a quick Wikipedia reference, it’s clear where the story is going. Wynne and Penkovsky meet, they become friends, valuable intelligence makes its way to the West and then something terrible happens. And, of course, there is tension back home with Wynne’s wife (Buckley) wondering why her husband continues to travel to Russia and returns increasingly stressed.
Cooke’s direction is what you’d expect for any prestige period film of this ilk. You can argue he plays up the humorous moments a bit too much considering the circumstances but it’s clearly meant to contrast with Wynne’s ordeal later in. The production design, costumes and cinematography are on point although DP Sean Bobbit does surprise with an unexpectedly memorable shot now and then. It’s the actors who give the material the life it needs.
Cumberbatch is absolutely committed to the role enduring a physical transformation that would impress the likes of Christian Bale. This is Brosnahan’s first significant part since “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” took off. Yes, it’s another mid-Century period role, but she gives Donovan a vigor and a very effective contrast with Frank’s character.
It’s Buckley who makes you pay attention. No matter what the lines say in Tom O’Connor’s script she infuses a realism into her character that even Cumberbatch doesn’t aim for. You almost wish the movie told more of her story instead of her husband’s. [B]
“Ironbark” was acquired by Lionsgate and will be released by Roadside Attractions later this year.