Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Trevor Nunn
Stars: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Ben Miles, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tereza Srbova, Tom Hughes, Kevin Fuller, Ciaran Owens.
We first meet octogenarian widow Joan Stanley (played by Judi Dench) when MI5 agents arrest her in her own home and charge her with treason. An elderly retired librarian she is the last person one would suspect of being a spy. As she is interrogated and tries to defend her choice, Joan’s story unfolds in a series of lengthy flashback sequences.
In 1938 Joan (played by Sophie Cookson, from the two Kingsman films, etc) was a smart but introverted physics student at Cambridge University. She was invited by her professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) to work alongside him in his laboratory as he was working on developing the atom bomb. Joan was also slowly drawn into the world of the vibrant classmate Sonja (Tereza Srbova, from Strike Back, etc) and her idealistic brother Leo (Tom Hughes, from tv series Victoria, etc), who later became her lover. Sonja and Leo were communist sympathisers and they eventually convinced Joan to pass along secrets of the British nuclear program.
Red Joan is based on the 2014 novel written by Jennie Rooney, which was itself inspired by the real life story of Melita Norwood, a civil servant who passed secrets about Britain’s nuclear research program onto the Russians in the 1940s and 50s. She was eventually exposed and arrested in 1992, when she was aged in her 80s, and exposed as Britain’s longest serving KGB spy. The British government declined to prosecute because of her age. She justified her actions, rightly or wrongly, by saying that if everyone had the bomb it would reduce the likelihood of all-out war. She wanted to level the nuclear playing field.
Rooney’s novel has been adapted for the screen by Lindsay Shapero, better known for her work on documentaries, and her script is a little pedestrian and lacks any sense of peril or urgency. Her lacklustre script is unable to probe too deeply into Joan’s psyche or provide a sense of her motivation, and most of the characters remain poorly developed.
Although she is given limited screen time and criminally underused here Dench is still good and brings a vulnerability and fierce determination to her portrayal of Joan. But she is largely sidelined as her character becomes a framing device for the main story. As the younger Joan, Cookson is good. She does not attempt to mimic Dench’s mannerisms, but rather tries to convey a sense of her own younger idealistic personality and her own confused loyalties. Ben Miles plays Nick, her disapproving son and lawyer, who is initially outraged by the allegations until the truth emerges.
The film itself has been directed by Trevor Nunn, an acclaimed four-time Tony award winning director better known for his stage work (Cats, etc) and his long relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company than his film work (Lady Jane in 1986). His last feature film was Twelfth Night in 1997. His direction is rather laid back and lethargic, and he gives the film something of an old-fashioned feel. It lacks any real sense of drama or tension. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson (the recent All Is True, etc) bathes the film in a warm nostalgic palette.
Ultimately Red Joan is an underwhelming, listless and fairly dull melodrama of spies, Cold War secrets and duplicity, and romance. There is probably a great drama to be made about Norwood and her actions, but this isn’t it.