The Courier / Ironbark

I was intrigued to see an ad on our Amazon Fire Stick for the film The Courier starring Benedict Cumberbatch recently. It’s a cold war spy thriller that I think was released to UK cinemas in August this year, and now available to rent digitally. But in a previous life it was entitled Ironbark, and I actually saw it way back in July 2019.

The screening was one of those hush-hush preview screenings where production staff loiter outside a multiplex and ask if you want to see a free film, in return for some feedback (and a signed confidentiality agreement to not blab about it ahead of its release). We even had to hand in our phones on entry, and promise that we had no other recording devices on our person.

It was a fun opportunity – both to see a film ahead of its official release, and also to see a film before it’s even finished. I believe all the filming had been done, but there were a number of elements left unfinished including CGI and titles and so on.

The short review of the film itself I wrote in my diary at the time was this:

The film was interesting and pretty good. Ultimately felt more like a TV movie than a film for the cinema, but was dramatic and interesting. Good story about cold war spying and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sorry. “Interesting  and pretty good” probably isn’t the strongest quote to stick on the poster. Maybe “dramatic and interesting” is better? “More like a TV movie” is definitely not strong praise.

As usual I was more interested in the insight into the filmmaking process than the story itself. A few points about the edit caught my attention:

Some of the more interesting unfinished bits were using the Catch Me If You Can soundtrack in several scenes which hadn’t had their score recorded yet, and a number of visual effects which weren’t finished, including a long shot of a golf course in which the club house at the end of the green was a watermarked stock photo!

Having seen this version in July 2019, it felt almost finished, which led me to wonder at the time about when it might get released:

Filming finished late last year and at this rate I’d imagine it might come out later this year or early next – it’s probably as much to do with scheduling and marketing as it is when the film is actually finished.

It actually premiered in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival (as Ironbark). But that was in January/February of 2020 – and we all know what followed.

It was interesting watching the finished trailer for The Courier, and trying to remember what feedback we would have given at the time. I think we found the title Ironbark a hard sell – The Courier feels better to me (though quite generic). At the time I wrote that there was “definitely a bit of editing left to do.”

But one thing I clearly remember was that the latter part of the film was dark. Gulag / prison dark. Earlier parts had a softly humorous approach at delivery/situations, but the latter act(s) felt completely at odds with that. Possibly intentionally, especially given the true events the film is based on. But it definitely felt jarring.

It would be interesting to see the film again in its final edit. Reviews seem to be lukewarm, but roughly in line with my general feeling: interesting story, a bit sloppily/clumsily told, elevated by the presence of a great cast including Benedict Cumberbatch amongst others.