Sundance Film Review: Ironbark
Sundance Film Festival
Director: Dominic Cooke
The audience shifted nervously in their seats as mushroom clouds blossomed and Cold War events unfolded in Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark. Based on true events, it made its world premiere this week at Sundance 2020. Ironbark is the codename for historical Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), one of the most prolific and important U.S. informants in history. Penkovsky passed over 5,000 photographs of classified military, political and economic documents to British and U.S. intelligence forces in the early 1960s through a British courier. This courier and protagonist of the film, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), is no glittering Bond-style, upper-class spy. Instead, we see the white-knuckle eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of a reluctant family man. Greville is locked in a test of character and convictions, and we contemplate the bravery of ordinary people and what they’re capable of when humanity’s at stake.
Director Cooke has deep roots in theater, having worked at the Royal Court Theatre in England and directed a BAFTA Award–nominated Shakespearean adaptation for the BBC. Cooke and Cumberbatch create a character with classical theater depth that morphs emotionally and physically in drastic ways. Cumberbatch’s Greville starts as a goofy, middle-class British salesman (with a performance that has a ring of John Cleese from Monty Python), whom the intelligence community approaches because he seems too silly to be up to anything nefarious. Even Greville’s wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), quips that he wasn’t clever enough to hide his affair from her, setting the scene for a relationship that adds a rich under-layer to the typically male-dominated wartime plot.
Tom O’Connor’s engaging script gives time for intriguing and complex dialogue and allows Cumberbatch’s character to take a radical turn when he’s approached by British intelligence agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA official Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). Greville is reluctant but ultimately seduced by the intrigue of acting as a courier from the British/American intelligence to and back from Oleg, a colonel in the GRU and deputy chief of the foreign section of the State Committee for the Coordination of Scientific Research.
As Greville and the conflicted Oleg come into contact when Greville starts conducting business in Russia, the two men soon develop a real bond. Each has a modest lifestyle, shown through nostalgia-inducing, mid-century domestic shots, with beloved wives and children. At the Grand Theatre Q&A discussion on Jan. 25, Cooke, O’Connor, and Ninidze discussed the humanity of the friendship between the two men, noting the universality of this behind-enemy-lines interaction, despite cultural differences. This connection radiates warmth as the film darkens, with the stand-out acting of Ninidze showing his conflicted feelings and genuine connection with Greville as he betrays his country to prevent nuclear war.
Faced with a life-altering choice, Greville’s character evolves again and reaches heroic heights as he follows the path his convictions dictate. Audiences will be shocked by the physical lengths Cumberbatch goes to in order to give an honest portrayal of the horrors of war. In response to a question about the men’s physical transformation, Ninidze said he was inspired by Cumberbatch’s dedication (to the tune of 8 kilograms or 17 pounds lost for the final scenes of Ironbark).
Ultimately, the information Oleg and Greville exchanged proved invaluable to the U.S. before and during the Cuban Missile crisis, which occurred just 57 years ago. Penkovsky’s fate is grisly, while Greville’s is just a little less dour and ends the film on an uplifting note. With rich dialogue and plot lines, and a cast that has the talent to portray the wide breadth of the characters’ experiences, Ironbark is a gripping reminder of what war could ask of each of us and how close the world came to destruction not so long ago. –Hannah McBeth
Jan. 27 // 12:00 p.m // Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room
Feb. 1 // 8:30 p.m // The MARC Theatre Park city
Feb. 2 // 12:15 p.m // Rose Wagner Center Salt Lake City
Read more of SLUG’s comprehensive coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.