‘Red Joan:’ Better Dench than red
Red Joan is based on Jennie Rooney’s novel and inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, a retired British civil servant whose ties to a Soviet spy ring in Britain were revealed more than 50 years later. Here the character is called Joan Stanley, and she is played by Judi Dench – which immediately elevates the production.
The film opens with Joan being arrested and interrogated by the authorities, during which time she flashes back to her early days at Cambridge University in 1938. The storm clouds of World War II are darkening ominously, and political idealism runs rampant on campus. Joan isn’t so much swayed by the call of Communism or Socialism as the charisma of handsome, dashing firebrand Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), who recruits her by wooing her. She has misgivings, but she’s also delighted to be accepted by this group of lively intellectuals.
Upon graduation, Joan becomes involved with Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), who is working with the Canadians to build Britain’s first atomic bomb – the Americans opting to work in secrecy, despite being allied with Britain (and Russia, for that matter). World War II may be raging, but the Cold War is lurking already.
Max is also married, which is a major complication, and during their research, Joan feels compelled to pass along atomic secrets to her former collegiate comrades. The film makes a point of showing her signing the Official Secrets Act, but her idealism wins out, although it’s only a matter of time before she realizes that she’s been a patsy all along.
In terms of the performances, competence is foremost. Dench, of course, is beyond reproach, although her role is far smaller than Cookson’s, who shoulders most of the narrative. Hughes, Moore, Tereza Srbova, Stephen Boxer, Freddie Gaminara (in his screen debut), and Robin Soans (as Prime Minister Clement Attlee) are all fine, but the film’s best turn is delivered by Ben Miles as Joan’s son Nick, a barrister (lawyer) suddenly confronted with the reality that his entire upbringing has been shrouded in secrecy and outright deception. The scene where he angrily confronts his mother in the interrogation room in questionably the film’s best, filled with fury and reproach – and Dench’s underplayed reaction of shame sells it.
Red Joan was directed by Trevor Nunn, far better known for his stage triumphs (Aspects of Love, Cats, Les Miserables, etc.) than his screen work. This marks his first feature since the whimsical Shakespearean adaptation Twelfth Night 23 years ago, and there’s a palpable theatrical quality to the proceedings. This is a respectable enough endeavor on its own modest terms but might have been more appropriate for the small screen.
−Red Joan opens May 10.
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