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‘Ironbark': Benedict Cumberbatch’s Timely Cold War Drama Brings Thrills, Unexpected Laughs to Sundance

Sundance 2020: Film tells the true story of British businessman turned spy Greville Wynne

Introducing “Ironbark” on Friday night at Sundance 2020, festival President John Cooper said the Cold War drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a “unique” choice for the annual event, which has only rarely featured period dramas.

Based on a true story most people have never heard of, the film from director Dominic Cooke tells the story of Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a British businessman recruited to travel to Moscow and acquire information about the Soviet Union’s missile plans from a Russian source, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). As tensions escalate into the Cuban Missile Crisis, they smuggle documents back to the west, with severe consequences for both men.

Cumberbatch is currently shooting Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” in New Zealand and wasn’t able to attend the screening, but he did send a video message to audience members expressing his regret for not being there. Even so, excitement was high for an audience that filled literally every seat in the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah.

Those expecting a straight drama were surprised by a script that also brought laughs both from its characters and apparent allusions to current events. For instance, one scene depicted Cumberbatch’s almost naive disbelief that he was “having lunch with spies” after he’s first introduced to the mission. Another provided a pithy punch line: asked whether he can hold his liquor, Wynne replies that that’s the “one gift” he has.

Particularly big laughter erupted when Ninidze’s Penkovsky talked about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who he called “impulsive” and said “a man like that should not be in command.” One guess who the audience assumed that line referred to (Donald Trump).

And later still, the audience snickered when Penkovsy says he wants to move to Montana with his family because he’s seen photos and “it’s a beautiful place” — a line we suspect might have been a reference to another Cold War drama, 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October.”

The film is primarily focused on tensions between the USSR and USA, but it also looks at the power struggle between MI6 and the CIA, showing how both sides had different perspectives on how to handle the situation. Wynne is a British national and therefore, he falls under The Crown’s jurisdiction, but the CIA, namely the CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) has other plans. Additionally, there are also power struggles in Wynne’s relationship with his wife — notably when he decides to put Penkovsky’s life first, which leads to turmoil in his relationship.

After the credits rolled, director Dominic Cooke, producers Ben Pugh, Adam Ackland and Ben Browning, writer Tom O’Connor, Brosnahan and Ninidze came on stage for a Q&A.

“I do not like reading scripts, but this one [was exceptional],” Ninidze told the audience, adding that he was extremely nervous. “I told myself I’d do everything to get this part, and I did.”

O’Connor explained that Brosnahan’s character never actually existed but instead was composed of many men that had been part of the mission. He explained that they wanted to make it a female character because it added “new texture” to a movie that already had too many men.

Perhaps the biggest question on everyone’s minds after the film had ended was how on earth Cumberbatch had lost so much weight (just watch the movie, you’ll see what we mean). Cooke explained that they stopped shooting for three months so Cumberbatch could lose the weight — and “he worked hard” with a nutritionist to make sure it was safe.

Brian Welk contributed to this report.