Red Joan

RED JOAN. Starring: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, and Teresa Srbova. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Rated M  (Mature themes and sex scenes). 109 min.

This British spy film is based loosely on a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero, and on a novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, which was published in 2013.

Rooney’s novel was inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, who was recruited by the KGB,   and then “outed” as a spy in 1999. Norwood supplied intelligence information on state secrets, and the film fictionalises Norwood as Joan Stanley.

The film shows Joan Stanley - the title’s “Red Joan” - being employed as a British government civil servant in the 1930s, and subsequently recruited by the KGB. Joan transferred state secrets about Britain’s atomic war programme to the Soviet Union which enabled Russia to track the West in its development of atomic weapons, and she continued her spying for decades as the KGB’s longest-serving British spy. Known as the “granny spy”, Red Joan was eventually arrested as a retired librarian, living quietly as an elderly woman in a picturesque English village. MI5 arrested her, following the death of an associate which aroused its suspicions.

Joan’s recruitment was commenced by a classmate, Sonya (Teresa Srbova), and reinforced by her cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), while she was a student studying Physics at Cambridge University. Later, she joined a top-secret British programme on the development of atomic weapons, and, deeply affected by the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she leaked classified information to Russia. Joan believed that if Russia had an atomic bomb, it would stop the superpowers bombing each other. In her own words, she gave British secrets away “to make a just world for everyone...(especially)...for the living”. Sophie Cookson plays Red Joan as a young woman, and Judi Dench plays her as an older woman.

The movie contains spying, sex scandals, unexpected deaths ( including two suicides), and personal betrayals, but the treatment of events by Trevor Nunn sweeps believably across most of the tragedy. At the end of the film, a picture of the true personality of Red Joan starts to emerge. Throughout the film, however, Dench conveys appropriate earnestness as “granny” in a way that arouses viewer sympathy, but most of the convincing about her character is left to Cookson as a young Red Joan. The path from a young Joan to an older Joan had a lot of distractions to cope with, and it is the unfolding melodrama of events that ultimately engages the viewer.

The film opens with the 2000 arrest of Dench’s Joan, and a series of police interrogations of her is communicated in flashbacks. After young Joan was radicalised by her Communist lover, Leo, and following her arrest, Joan’s son (Ben Miles) denounced his mother as a traitor, but eventually came around to give her his emotional support in public. All along, Joan strongly believed in peace at any price, even over patriotism. To Britain, Red Joan was always a traitor.

The film spends a lot of time on Joan’s romantic love interests - first with Leo, and then with her married boss, Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore). We needed to learn more about how Red Joan felt internally about her deceit, and what defined her “look of ordinariness” in the  complex world of espionage. How did Joan’s strong commitment to “fair play” work out, for instance, in the world of spies? Trevor Nunn’s technique of flitting from present to the past has the effect of dissipating the tension, and questions about the morality of Joan’s behaviour slip by, almost unnoticed.

This is a film inspired by true events. Judi Dench plays her role with consummate skill, as does Sophie Cookson. But the viewer needed to know more about the moral choices that characterised Melita Norwood’s spy behaviour, and for that we needed to see and hear, a little more from Judi Dench.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Transmission Films

Released June 6, 2019

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