Sunday 21 November 2021

Movie Review: Red Joan (2018)

A World War Two spy drama, Red Joan is an attractive period piece but rarely delves beneath surface gloss.

In the year 2000, the elderly Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is arrested in England and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Her son Nick (Ben Miles), a lawyer, supports her through multiple interrogation sessions. In flashbacks her story is revealed, starting at Cambridge University in the late 1930s where a young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is studying physics. She befriends student communist sympathizers including the vivacious Sonya (Tereza Srbova), her cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) and their friend William (Freddie Gaminara). 

Joan and Leo embark on a romance. When the war starts she secures a job as an assistant to researcher Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) in Britain's top secret program to develop atomic weapons. When Leo relocates to Canada, Joan starts a romance with Max, although he is married. With the research program making progress and the USSR desperate to obtain atomic bomb technology, Leo re-emerges and pressures Joan to pass documents to the communists, with Sonya as the go-between.

Directed by Trevor Nunn and written by Lindsay Shapero, Red Joan is loosely inspired by the real-life story of Melita Norwood. The film always looks polished but lacks big-screen grandeur. With the war as a backdrop, events move briskly between chapters propelled by the frantic scientific work to win the atomic bomb research race. Tension between the allies and the dynamic of young people entering the real world in the midst of a crisis add a crackle of intensity.

The modern day scenes are set in sparse white-walled interrogation rooms, Judi Dench as the elderly Joan being grilled by humourless intelligence agents. Dench brings sorrowful intensity as she recalls wartime adventures and romances, but her performance bumps against the limits of a role not far from serving as token bookends to the real story being told.

The wartime scenes are a glossy recreation of a turbulent time, Joan blossoming within an exciting anything-goes milieu, first in an august academic setting then in a war where Soviets are allies, communism is a great transformational hope, and life could end at any moment. Sophie Cookson brings an appealing wide-eyed naivete to the role, but unfortunately for a woman at the drama's heart, she is portrayed as talented at physics, but poor in selecting her friends and judging people, and easily manipulated into ill-conceived romances.

After the war ends and the inquiry starts into the document leaks, the film loses momentum. Shapero takes a half-hearted stab at excusing the traitor as a global benevolence ambassador, Joan's justification for shipping atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets simplified to spreading knowledge as a deterrence strategy. It's a barely credible stance, and here it goes unchallenged. Red Joan is easy to enjoy, and just as easy to pass on.

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