Judi Dench Steals The Show In RED JOAN, An Attempt At Weaving Together The Personal And The Political4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
The story of Joan Stanley, who was exposed as the KGB’s longest-serving British spy. The English-born, Soviet and communist party sympathiser was recruited by the KGB in the mid-1930s, and successfully transferred nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, enabling it to keep up with the west in the development of atomic weapons. Joan remained undetected as a spy for over a half a century, until her arrest in 2000.
Director: Trevor Nunn
Cast: Judi Dench, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 101 minutes
Reviewed by: Leticia Sim
In her latest decree as British cinema’s atomic powerhouse, Dame Judi Dench plays Joan, an elderly woman ousted for being a KGB spy in the 1930s, supplying bomb secrets to the Russian government whilst straddling steamy romances with a hunky communist and the head physicist leading Britain’s bomb research. If this all sounds like an interesting enough premise to make an entertaining espionage film—it isn’t. Red Joan feels more like a made-for-TV BBC melodrama scheduled to be played in the middle of the day.
Based on the Jennie Rooney novel of the same name, itself very loosely based on the real-life story of KGB spy Melita Norwood, the film mostly makes use of flashbacks to slowly reveal Joan’s sordid past, allowing us to discover her motivations for committing high treason. Now, don’t be fooled by the posters and trailers for Red Joan, Judi Dench only makes an appearance for about 10 minutes, with the story mostly being helmed by young Joan played by Sophie Cookson. Both their performances are solid and emotional—perhaps the biggest draws for Red Joan. But a lacklustre script and flat cinematic storytelling hinder them from ever truly shining.
A wide-eyed and naïve physics student at Cambridge, young Joan first meets Sonya, a femme fatale Russian who introduces her to her impassioned and charismatic brother Leo. He’s a dedicated communist, giving rousing speeches on campus about the worker’s paradise of Stalinist Russia, and Western society’s class antagonism. She quickly falls deeply and impossibly in love with him, sprouting an on-again off-again romance that will eventually influence her mercurial political affiliations, especially when she starts working for a top-secret research unit on the development of the British bomb.
What Red Joan does well is dramatising the fear and moral ambiguity during the war, a time when someone in such a position of power has to question if loyalty to their country is more important than loyalty to humanity. Understanding the pure chaos of witnessing large scale destruction unravel so quickly is imperative in empathising with Joan’s mindset and actions. This is shown through glimpses of the A-bomb’s destruction on the television, or when her male colleagues revel in the death of thousands, disregarding the moral cost of their work.
The film really squeezes every last second of criminally underused Judi Dench’s short screen time—and rightfully so—but having most of the story’s exposition explained towards the end of its runtime inevitably causes the movie’s stakes to exist mostly in the present. This makes for occasionally intriguing moments like when modern-day Joan sips tea out of a Che Guevara mug, but doesn’t really expand on this idea of rejecting blind patriotism or any sort of worthwhile political commentary.
What could have been a genuinely dramatic, high-tension, and fascinating story about betrayal, espionage, and idealism, Red Joan chooses to spend most of the film focusing on Joan’s uncomfortable love affairs. Most of Joan and Leo’s romance is essentially built on him seducing her with sweet proletarian nothings like “my little comrade”—make of that what you will.
Red Joan is ultimately an inoffensive but uninspired attempt at showcasing how the personal and the political intertwine during such a scary and paramount time; it never really shifts gear or gets the right dramatic tone it needs to truly engage the audience and for us to care about its characters.
As I left the theatre, I overheard a woman complain to her friend that Singapore “only screens blockbusters”, and that only people like her are interested in watching films like this—and in that moment, I realised that despite my grievances, Red Joan had at the very least succeeded in reaching and enrapturing the people it was made for.