DIRECTED BY: TREVOR NUNN/2019
Red Joan is an adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel that covers the life of Melita Norwood, dubbed the “Granny Spy”. Ms. Norwood was said to be the longest serving British KGB spy, and when she was finally arrested in her 80’s, the biggest question was whether or not the British government should even pursue prosecution for treason. Directed by the Tony-award winning director, Sir Trevor Nunn, Red Joan is a completely fascinating tale, with a fantastic cast, trapped in a slowly paced and somewhat dull film.
Melita Norwood’s name has been changed to Joan Stanley in the film, played by Dame Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul, Murder on the Orient Express) as the elderly Joan, and by Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Secret Service) in flashback scenes. While Judi Dench is the main draw for this film, it is Miss Cookson who does the heavy lifting in the film.
Sophie Cookson is very good in her role and with a better screenplay, than the one by Lindsay Shapero, this could have been rather compelling. As it is, she does all she can to elevate what she is given, and for this reason, Red Joan is a watchable affair at the very least. Mrs. Dench is brilliant as always, but easily could have filmed her parts in just a day or two given how little screen time she truly has, despite being the lead.
The film focuses on the year 2000 when Joan Stanley (Dench) has been arrested and brought in for interrogation after years of casework. The charge is that she has been a spy for the KGB going back to 1938, and that she is guilty of treason. Of course she denies all of this, and through flashback accounts as she answers the authority’s questions, or through conversations with her son Nick (Ben Miles-V for Vendetta, Woman in Gold), we begin to learn the truth of her activities, what motivated her actions, and whether she is the traitor that is she accused of being.
With a family accused of being socialists, and by extension communist sympathizers, authorities easily may accuse Joan of being a communist herself, especially since she was a regular at the communist meetings and film club at Cambridge where she was studying physics. It was at this film club that she bonded more with Sonya Galich (Tereza Srbova-Eastern Promises), and Sonya’s cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes-About Time).
At first, it seems that she is being drawn in by Leo’s charms, but it ultimately becomes about something much bigger once she starts working for Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore-Goodbye Christopher Robin) on the British project to develop the atomic bomb. This is when some of the twists and turns should have started emerging, but we are never really given a look at the behind the scenes manipulation of the KGB. Instead, agents just show up randomly, knowing everything they need to know with Joan just being confused by this, but never asking deeper questions…much like the script.
As the authorities are circling around Joan on the brink of getting a confession in the modern day, we begin to sense the danger she is in back during World War II of being exposed then as a potential KGB spy. It is here that the film could have, and should have, kicked into high gear. This is not to say that it needed more action, but simply more tension to draw viewers into the story.
Alas, the film never seems to want to get the viewers pulse rate up, simply cutting away from scenes before they finish so that the director can force you to feel a sort of faux-tension of not knowing what happened as a means of getting you to continue to watch just to resolve the previously unfinished scene. Unfortunately, it feels like a lazy way to force interest, especially when the basic story line provides a great foundation to make this a truly compelling story.
Red Joan delivers the foundation of an interesting story many might not know from history, that might compel further interest and inquiry into the true case against Melita Norwood, Britain’s “Granny Spy”. It won’t, however, deliver a compelling cinematic experience. Red Joan enlists a fantastic cast who give it all they got, and for that reason alone it is a totally watchable film, albeit a dull one.