Red Joan

But aren't you meant to be M, Dame Judi?
6/10 – Red Joan fails to ever garner any real sense of suspense, though is worth watching simply to see Dame Judi Dench in her element.
Release Date: 
Friday, April 19, 2019
Written by: 

Red Joan tells the story of Joan Stanley, a woman alleged to be the KGB's longest-serving British spy.


Even with all of the politics of Brexit rumbling on, at the very least, the U.K. continues to export some decent dramas.

And with his latest film Red Joan, celebrated theatre director Trevor Nunn certainly dishes up plenty to talk about.

Set in a quiet English village in the early 2000s, the plot kicks off with the audience meeting Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), a pensioner who spends her days tending to her garden and pottering around her humble flat.

However, Joan has her life turned upside-down when she is unexpectedly arrested by MI5 agents for treason, with the officers claiming to have decades' worth of papers connecting her to Russia.

It's hard to believe that this little old lady could be capable of any sort of espionage, and her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles) is especially baffled by the charges.

Accordingly, the filmmaker then employs a series of flashbacks to delve into Joan's past, dating back to her time as a physics student at Cambridge University in the 1930s.

A young Joan (played by Sophie Cookson) is unassuming and dedicated to her studies, but is unexpectedly befriended by glamorous Russian-born beauty Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her handsome cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes).

The duo encourages her to join them at communist rallies, and in-between his mysterious trips to Europe, Leo begins pursuing Joan, deeming her to be his "little comrade".

A little naive and a lot in love, the young woman is seduced by Leo, and even while she remains unfazed by his cause, when she begins work at a top-secret nuclear research facility a couple of years later, her edgy beau becomes a lot more demanding in his requests.

He begs her to steal secrets regarding nuclear weapons from her new boss and love interest Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), in order to curb more conflict in the post-war world, with Joan quickly becoming torn between her morals and allegiance to her country.


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The story delves into some pretty heavy themes, with Joan confronted with the near-impossible choices of whether one should betray their nation and loved ones even if it means saving them, and the price that should be paid for peace, with the physicist particularly horrified by atomic bomb tests taking place which eventually lead to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Filmmaker Trevor does a nice job of winding the various plot threads together, yet there is a little too much time focused on Joan's past when her present situation is just as intriguing, if not more so.

And, while Red Joan is loosely based on the life of British civil servant Melita Norwood, who for a period of 40 years following her recruitment in 1937 supplied the KGB with state secrets, with one widely quoted but unattributed source describing her as "the most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR," there is no doubt at any time that the production is a work of fiction.

Dame Judi relishes in the role, striking a delicate balance between conveying emotion and defending her selfless decisions, making the point that perhaps not all spies take sides in conflicts. Kingsman: The Secret Service actress Sophie gives a competent performance and has the perfect look for the time period, but unfortunately some of her long gazes directed at either Max or Leo become rather tiresome.

Additionally, Red Joan loses points because scriptwriter Lindsay Shapero's narrative doesn't always flow, with some scenes failing to build any tension whatsoever, while many of the concluding bombshells feel a little rushed and underexplained.

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