Red Joan

red joanRed Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018) wr. Lindsay Shapero, from Jennie Rooney's novel

Sophie Cookson, Judi Dench, Tom Hughes (Leo), Stephen Campbell Moore (Prof. Max Davies), Ben Miles (Nick)

The story of (fictional) Joan Stanley, who was exposed late in a long life as the KGB's longest-serving British spy.

This is based on the life of the 'Granny spy', Melita Sirnis (1912-2005 [93]), known as Norwood because she married a man called Hilary whose real surname was Nussbaum. For most of the screen time (1:41] Cookson plays the young Joan Stanley. Dench's performance is confined to scenes after Stanley's arrest, with her son Nick (Ben Miles), and at her home, particularly in the final confessional scene, when Dench looks all of her 83-4 years.

The story is dumbed down from the real-life one, making it easier for the audience to accept that the fictional woman is a physicist (capable of 'inventing' the atom bomb), whereas the real one was merely a secretary. It also invents a son, Nick (Norwood had a daughter) who is a lawyer, to provide the film with the final scene of understanding and reconciliation it so badly needs, after an hour-and-a half of rather dreary Englishness.

Said Englishness is unfortunately interfered with by Tom Hughes as a German love interest, doing the same awful accent he does as Albert in the Victoria series (with Jenna Coleman, 2016-).

Is it a (good?) sign of the times that being a spy is now seen as being a good thing? Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks, and all that.

Trevor Nunn is not the first director to accrue both a glorious stage résumé and a paltry, pedestrian screen one. Still, given the talent involved, it’s disappointing that Red Joan does so little to change that - his first theatrical feature since a decent Twelfth Night adaptation 22 years ago is a would-be sweeping epic that instead turns out tweedy, dreary, and unconvincing. ...
Red Joan is uninspired on all levels, with credible-enough period atmosphere but little in the way of style or scale to give this oddly flat tale - odd because it involves sex, spying, scandal, and death, none of which bring excitement here - an aesthetic lift. The most you can say about the film’s look and George Fenton’s original score are that they are conventionally workmanlike.
The source novel appears to have taken considerable fictive liberties with Melita Norwood’s actual history. One suspects the latter might still make a good film one day, and that this one won’t be remembered long enough to provide an obstacle. Dennis Harvey, Variety.

... on this occasion a potentially gripping subject is marred by flat direction and a creaky, wooden, schematic script. Low on psychological complexity or dramatic tension, the result is more Midsomer Murders than John le Carré. ... she feels compelled to betray Britain anyway, ironically due to her very British sense of fair play. Which is a quaint notion, but real espionage is simply not so cosy, so glib or so ethically pure. ... Stephen Dalton, Sunday Times.

Red Joan leaves a lasting impression mostly with its flashback scenes. While Judi Dench is flawless in bringing time-spanning depth to her melancholic character (with accidental nods to her infamous 'M' persona), her contemporary segments are comparably bland by narrative design. Uneven it may be, Red Joan still emanates a memorable essence, one that’s refreshingly and believably feminine. Tomris Laffly.

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 8 June, 2019 | Now: 10 June, 2019