Given that I have a thing for spy films AND I adore Dame Judi Dench, I knew I had to see Red Joan the second I saw the trailer. Dame Judi is best known to most moviegoers as James Bond’s tough-as-nails boss M, so the idea of her playing a British-born former spy who transfers nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets is undoubtedly intriguing. Red Joan is more in the vein of John Le Carré’s slo-burn type than an action-packed Bond flick, with most of the story told in flashback mode.
The film begins in modern day with the 80-something Joan Stanley tending her English garden. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and she’s charged with treason and whisked away by MI-5 for interrogation. Then we’re transported to Cambridge in the late 1930s. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is a bright, studious physics student who meets a new, rather mysterious fellow student Sonya (Tereza Srbova) who climbs through her window in a party dress. Her new charming, persuasive friend later takes Joan to a ‘film night,’ which is a cover for a meet-up with communist party sympathizer. The subsequent meetings and rendezvous with a Soviet-born student Leo (Tom Hughes) propel Joan into the world of espionage.
As I mentioned above, if you expect a high-octane thriller a la Bond, Bourne or Atomic Blonde, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. I for one enjoy both, there’s plenty of room for both styles in the genres. Inspired by the true story of Melitta Norwood, dubbed the “most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR,” Joan’s covert activities in the top secret nuclear research facility are far more grounded. The fact that back in the day women in the office were regarded as nothing more than secretaries was perhaps an advantage for female spies. Physics was (and still is) a male-dominated field where male chauvinism was the norm. On the flip side, it also makes Joan the perfect spy, as few would suspect that she’d possess the intellect to discern what the covert agency was building, let alone have the audacity to share those plans with the enemy.
Director Trevor Nunn, famous for his Shakespearean adaptations, adapted Norwood’s story based on Lindsay Shapero‘s script. Overall it’s a handsomely mounted production that should please fans of period pieces. The more I mull over this film though, there’s just something wanting. For one, because of the extensive flashback scenes, there isn’t enough of Dame Judi on screen for my liking. She’s billed as the lead, but Cookson clearly has the most screen time. But even with two actors playing the same character, the film barely scratches the surface in depicting a multi-layered woman in one of the most interesting times in history. Nunn depicts a series of espionage activities rather than deliver a compelling character study. We barely get any insight into who Joan really is, her background, and why she did what she did. Even as her son Nick (Ben Miles) berated her ‘how could you?!’ and constantly asking her why, we only get generic answers like ‘I’m not a traitor… I love my country.’
For a film about a world filled with secrets, intrigue and imminent danger of being caught, the film also lacks any real tension. At times the romance get overly melodramatic that it often overpowers the story. I guess it’s a matter of expectations–I was expecting more of a mystery/suspense thriller than a spy romance. The performances are uneven as well. Cookson is quite fascinating to watch as a conflicted young woman who often finds herself in impossible situations. Naturally Joan is drawn to men who believe in her and sees her as her equal. As Leo, Tom Hughes comes across as rather lackluster and not charismatic enough for a supposedly sly, seductive character. Stephen Campbell Moore as Professor Max, Joan’s boss-turned-lover, fares a bit better here in a smaller role. Dame Judi herself is always solid, but given her immense acting cred, her talents is largely wasted in this film.
The biggest miss-opportunity any film could make is when it places its focus on the wrong thing, and I feel that it’s the case with Red Joan. It’s one of those movies that was entertaining enough because of the cast, but in the end I can’t help wonder what it could’ve been. Joan was described at one point as ‘one of the quickest minds in atomic physics,’ I wish the film had been as razor-sharp as its own protagonist.
Have you seen RED JOAN? What did you think?