'Ironbark' Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Shines In This True Life Spy Drama [Sundance 2020]

Dominic Cooke's Ironbark is a sturdy, Dad-core period thriller destined to impress fathers everywhere.

As the Cold War rages in the early 1960s, Soviet and American relations are so tense that the U.S. can't risk sending an agent to make contact with a spy inside the Russian government. So the American and British governments team up to recruit a typical English businessman named Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to make contact for them, all in the hopes of preventing all-out nuclear war.

Cumberbatch is top notch as Wynne, a vaguely charismatic salesman who represents some of the world's top manufacturing companies. Naturally, he's confused when the government approaches him to make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze, very much holding his own), a Russian colonel (codename: Ironbark) whose desire to stop a war becomes more important than blind devotion to his country. But Wynne's somewhat boring nature is exactly why he's the perfect option: he can slip into the Soviet Union under the cover of doing business deals without arousing the suspicions of the Russians. There are simple pleasures to be had in watching Cumberbatch get excited about eating lunch with spies, or nervously walking the streets of Moscow asking his contact exactly what he's supposed to do.

Over the course of several trips, Wynne and Penkovsky eventually become good friends. "We are just two people," Penkovsky says during a shared meal, "but this is how things change." It's a message that feels particularly timely – just as timely as characters talking about how Khrushchev is impulsive and shouldn't have access to a nuclear arsenal. Sound like anyone you might know today?

Cumberbatch isn't new to true life spy dramas: five years ago he starred in The Imitation Game playing the prickly Alan Turing, the man who designed a machine which decoded Nazi communications during World War II. But while Turing was a more iconic figure, Cumberbatch is far more relatable as Wynne, a man totally out of his element but who becomes heroic by always trying to do the right thing.

More than any other film, Ironbark is a companion piece to Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, another Dad-Approved™ period thriller about tense U.S.-Russian relations. Both movies are set against a similar backdrop, and both are ultimately about how two cogs in governmental wheels can make inroads when they actually get to know each other. It's another "people are fundamentally not so different from each other" movie, and even if Tom O'Connor's script never really breaks any new ground, the movie wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that's almost old-fashioned in its sincerity.

Of course, Wynne can't tell anyone what he's up to – not even his own family. Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Chernobyl) plays Mrs. Wynne, and the fact that her husband once had an affair years earlier has her on high alert when his behavior suddenly changes after being recruited. Buckley is very good in a small role, proving once again that she's one of the best chameleons in the game right now. Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is also a standout as Wynne's CIA handler, bringing a determined energy to the story.

Before I continue with this review, I'm issuing a spoiler warning for true life events. Normally I wouldn't explicitly discuss things that happen late in a movie like this so long before readers have a chance to see it, but I want to make an exception here to talk about the most impressive aspect of the film: Cumberbatch's physical transformation. During the movie's climactic moment, the protagonists' plan falls apart and Wynne is captured by the Soviets and questioned about his involvement in the espionage. He pleads ignorance and refuses to rat out Penkovsky, and is subsequently jailed in horrible conditions. The movie cuts ahead to months later, revealing Wynne to be a gaunt shadow of his former self. The production shut down for three months so Cumberbatch could lose a significant amount of weight, and the end result is the most shocking physical transformation of his career. This is Christian Bale-level stuff we're talking about, the type of committed performance that awards bodies love to recognize. I'm not sure if Ironbark has what it takes to be a major awards contender in other categories, but don't be surprised if you hear awards chatter about that central performance. Even if you're not a fan of period thrillers, his top-tier work here should be enough to convince you to seek this out.

In the Peak Entertainment era, will a movie like this have a chance to reach a wide audience? As of this writing, the film is still searching for a distributor, but here's hoping it finds a respectable home. A triumphant, inspiring movie about the heroism of human decency, Ironbark is a rock solid spy drama that, if it came out 20 years ago, would have easily become a mainstay on TNT or TBS. Hollywood doesn't make movies like this very often anymore, and if does prove to be part of a last gasp of character-focused period thrillers, at least the genre is going out with some style.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10