The latest work starring Dame Judi Dench is a very different type of spy movie. In a way, the based-on-a-true-story Red Joan asks a question about the seemingly traitorous Joan Stanley (played by Dench as an elderly woman and Sophie Cookson from the character’s late teens during World War II through the early years of the Cold War) that is especially relevant today: If someone betrays their country for the greater good, are they in fact a traitor?
The film opens with the elder Joan living alone as a widow in the suburbs of London when the British Secret Service bursts into her quiet home and arrests her for giving classified scientific documents to the Soviet government for decades. Her grown son Nick (Ben Miles) has a prominent position in government and immediately assumes the charges are ridiculous, thinking they’ll be dismissed immediately, but as the agent interrogating Joan begins to unweave decades of clandestine behavior and illicit connections, even Nick can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Red Joan spends most of its running time in the past, tracking Joan’s fearful life during WWII and seeing the catastrophic destruction of America’s atomic weapons on Japan. During the war, Joan went to university and became an esteemed scientist herself, eventually joining the top secret team that was charged with developing Britain’s own bomb with the help of the Canadians. But she also kept in touch with political radicals and communists, including a handsome speaker named Leo (Tom Hughes), whom she falls in love with. For a long while, Joan is never sure if their meeting and relationship was by chance or if she was recruited for her access and knowledge, but over the years, as Leo disappears and reappears in her life, the truth becomes clear.
When Leo is away, Joan begins to fall for co-worker Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the man who eventually becomes her husband and Nick’s father. But that doesn’t stop Leo and his “sister” (and Joan’s sometime best friend) Sonya (Tereza Srbova) from popping up in her life and asking her to give them secrets about the bomb as a way for Russia to gain equal footing in the arms race. For most of her life, Joan justifies what she’s done in the name of peace (a peace that has never been broken, she points out). It’s a bold stance to take in what is otherwise a fairly mainstream, conventionally told movie.
Directed by Trevor Nunn (a leading stage director in Britain, who also directed films such as Lady Jane and Twelfth Night or What You Will) from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero (adapted from Jennie Rooney’s novel), Red Joan is moderately engaging as a thriller, but the tension is secondary to sparking a debate about loyalty to country versus global safety. It seems pretty clear which side of the argument the filmmakers land on, which is unnecessarily heavy handed. I also wasn’t especially impressed with Cookson’s performance, especially when the story jumps forward to Dench, whose laser-focused intensity makes most everyone else in the film look like they are barely trying. Red Joan is certainly a watchable curiosity, but as a piece of political discourse, it seems strangely ham-fisted and bland.
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