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First reactions to “Ironbark”

Ironbark has just had its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and we’ve already got some first impressions from audience members and official reviews!

But, before we get to them, we must share this message Benedict recorded for the event and that was shown right before the movie:

Full video
Another angle (incomplete video)

He says (hopefully, this is correct!):

Hello! I’m extremely sorry not to be with you, not least because I like snowboarding and great films and probably everybody at that town at the moment and I’ve always wanted to go to Sundance, in all seriousness. It’s the bassinet of great films and a fantastic festival and a inspiring one for the film culture in general. I really wish I was there just as an audience member. But not least in this instance because I have a film I’m in and have helped produce that is premiering in Sundance.

So, I really hope you enjoy Ironbark. Know that my thoughts are with you. I’m at the other side of the world shooting The Power of the Dog with Jane Campion in New Zealand. That’s a pretty good excuse, not that I need one because I’d be there in a heartbeat for the reasons I mentioned.

Many thanks to everyone involved in making the film, to Ben Pugh and Adam Ackland, to Ben and Glen at FilmNation and, of course, our fearless leader Dominic Cooke. I hope you enjoy the film.

Godspeed and see you next year, maybe! Bye, bye!

Now, to the comments!

Now, to the reviews!

We selected non-spoiler-y bits, avoiding plot points and scene descriptions the best we could. But the full reviews may contain spoilers, so please beware of that if you decide to check them out:

By John DeFore for The Hollywood Reporter:

A solid spy drama about ordinary people caught up in Cold War espionage, Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark is as meat-and-potatoes as its real-life hero: Greville Wynne, an English salesman who found himself helping avert calamity during the Cuban Missile Crisis

[…] Wynne is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his evolution is the heart of the movie; in fact, the film evolves as well — starting in light, “Who, me?!” territory before growing serious, then grim.

[…] Cumberbatch portrays him as a man who was ambivalent about serving his country, but iron-willed when it comes to personal loyalty. 

Full review

By Beatrice Verhoeven for The Wrap:

[…] 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.

Full review

By David Ehrlich for IndieWire:

While not quite as stiff as its title might suggest, Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark is unambiguously dad cinema down to its core. A confident, entertaining, and well-upholstered historical spy thriller about a regular guy who stumbles his way toward saving the world, it’s the perfect movie for anyone who watched Bridge of Spies and thought: “If only that had been 30 minutes shorter, a bit less artful, and a lot more British.”

[…] Cumberbatch — always more enjoyable as an everyman than an egoist — renders Wynne with a fun, anxious, “what the hell am I doing here?” energy that carries the action until his cover story begins to crumble. Ninidze makes a warm and stubbornly winsome foil as a good man in a bad situation, and the easy friendship between the film’s central figures is allowed to blossom with the unforced ease of a business contact. No suspension of belief is required to believe that Wynne and Penkovsky care for each other, or to accept the movie’s explicitly stated thesis that even the most historic changes happen two people at a time.

[…] Striking and effective as Cumberbatch’s severe weight loss can be towards the end, Cooke spends more time gawking at the star’s naked skeleton than it does on knotting the ties that bind Wynne to his family, and to his Russian friend who refused to leave him out in the cold. But if Ironbark doesn’t manage to hold the gravitas its story demands, perhaps that’s an inevitable concession in a film about how history isn’t always writ large — about how the world as we know it might sometimes hang in the balance of a single handshake.


Full review

By Peter Debruge for Variety:

Movie spies typically fall into one of two categories. There are the butterflies — flamboyant secret agents like James Bond or “Atomic Blonde” who behave as conspicuously as possible. And then there are the moth-like kind, who do their best to blend in. The character Benedict Cumberbatch plays in Ironbark belongs to the latter variety, a fellow so boring that he’s virtually invisible, recruited for the specific purpose that the Russians will never suspect him of working for MI6.

[…] A theater director whose experience adapts well to cinema, Cooke once again inspires great work from his ensemble. Cumberbatch has a very particular, somewhat priggish look that lends itself well to period roles — and to a moth-like operative like this in particular, whose life is so drab that he practically gives himself hiccups out of giddiness when MI6 first pitches him the idea. Brosnahan has less to do, but is a welcome presence all the same. A general complaint, which could be budget-based: There are too few extras to flesh out the film, giving the relatively stuffy impression that life stops at the edge of the frame. Despite ongoing conflicts with Russia today, the movie doesn’t feel terribly relevant to our time. 

Full review

By Tim Grierson for Screen Daily:

[…] This spy drama is bolstered by Benedict Cumberbatch’s stripped-down performance, and there’s plenty of pungent Cold War suspense to savour. And yet, Ironbark feels like a bit of a missed opportunity: The earnestness doesn’t necessarily do justice to the inherently absorbing material.

[…] Ironbark is superb in its depiction of time, place and general unease.

Cumberbatch and Ninidze’s rapport is also one of the film’s strengths. Not unlike the friendship that develops between Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in a different type of Cold War thriller, Bridge Of Spies, Greville and Oleg find plenty of common ground, and there’s a deep respect between the two men that makes the audience fear for their well-being. Cumberbatch strongly articulates Greville’s anxiety about being way out of his depth with this intricate spy-craft, while Ninidze is a calming presence, even though his character realises how much he’s risking by betraying his homeland.

[…] In some ways, Ironbark’s most compelling relationship is actually between Greville and Oleg; individuals from very different societies who had no idea how integral their bond would be in preventing nuclear war.

Full review

By Benjamin Lee for The Guardian:

[…] It’s a slow-burning film about the friendship that then blossoms between these two men as they routinely risk their lives for the greater good and there’s an earnest, well-intentioned message about wider political change starting on a smaller scale. It’s a timely concept but the underdeveloped bond between Greville and Alex failed to grab me with quite the force that the film-makers seem to think that it should, given where the plot takes them and us.

[…] While there’s decent work from Brosnahan, a pro now with the era after three seasons of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and some understated character acting from Ninidze, it’s really a showcase for Cumberbatch, also acting as producer. It’s admittedly a role that’s safely within his wheelhouse for the most part but he acquits himself well, transforming from unaware everyman to lowkey hero to something far more harrowing in the final act. He’s not always found his perfect fit in recent years but this feels like the kind of role that could potentially return him to the awards conversation in a film that Oscar voters will lap up, a safe and easily consumed slice of little-known history.

3/5 stars

Full review

By Alex Billington for

[…] There’s a delicate balance of humor and seriousness that, like so many great films, helps elevate this from fascinating to exceptional. The film is also anchored by two career best performances by Cumberbatch and Ninidze. It is these two and their friendship and camaraderie that moved to me to tears, proving just how valuable integrity can be. […] Both give phenomenal, heartfelt performances that give the film its emotional core.

[…] It’s extremely satisfying to watch a film as impressively entertaining and as engaging as this one. I love the score by Abel Korzeniowski, moody but moving. I love the performances from everyone, including Rachel Brosnahan. Director Dominic Cooke really impressed the heck out of me, so many aspects are handled with care and intelligence. It’s a good feeling to walk out of a film so moved. It’s a reminder that two people can change the world, that two friends can make a difference. And that the way we can break down walls, defeat evil, and make the world a better place is by learning to understand and respect other cultures, other people, other countries, and recognize every last person as human. Politicians may make us all feel like we should hate these people, but in reality they’re all just like us. They want to live a peaceful life, too. Ironbark is a film that instills a yearn for compassion and an obligation to fight for peace, not only fight for ourselves


Full review

By Leah Greenblatt for Entertainment Weekly:

Movies about the Cold War tend to run, for lack of a better word, a little cool. All those grey trench coats and grim interrogation rooms, secret meetings and whispered subterfuge. Even the heroism feels dampened — the courage that cannot be named, because it’s all already classified.

Accordingly, Ironbark has the feel of many films before it (Bridge of Spies, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) — a decorous, solidly smart thriller whose menace maintains a sort of low, steady hum. What elevates it is a sharp script (by Tom O’Connor) and the remarkable commitment of its two central performances.

[…] Ironbark might not be a great film in the end, but it is a satisfying good one; a story that’s at its best when it colors outside the black and white (or Communist red, as it were) lines of war and hones in on the real, fallible men and women who fought it, one quiet inglorious step at a time. 


Full review

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