2019, R, 101 min. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 3, 2019
In 1992, KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin handed over a treasure trove of classified material to British Intelligence – including the names of Russian agents in the West going back as far as World War II. On that list was Melita Norwood, an administrator who had worked on the UK's nuclear bomb program and had passed files to the NKVD and GRU. In Red Joan, a drama drawing on her life and treasons, there's a highly misguided effort to justify her actions.
The Norwood stand-in is Joan Smith, first seen as an old woman in suburban England (Dench) being arrested for the crimes of her youth; that younger version (Cookson) going from super-smart Cambridge graduate to nuclear scientist to spy, and whirling through a series of somewhat passionate romances and personal betrayals.
Portraying the deep inner emotional life of a Russian spy – especially one that sent bomb designs to Stalin – in the current political climate would be tough enough. Doing so in such a staid, unengaging and cliched fashion, buried under the restraining tweeds of postwar Britain, completely eludes legendary theatre director Trevor Nunn. Working from Jennie Rooney's 2013 novel, writer Lindsay Shapero (who tackled a different kind of wartime betrayal in her script for Royal Wives at War) does little to show the idealism that attracted Britain's intelligentsia to socialism during the Spanish Civil War, nor how that changed to a mix of misguided romanticism and venal greed that motivated so many Russian agents. Instead, it's all some wet waffling about. Trimmed down by 10 minutes from its original edit at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Red Joan seems to drift even further from the format that could have served it best: the classic British miniseries, in the mold of the seminal Smiley's People, the twisting genius of Reilly, Ace of Spies (a forgotten classic that defined Sam Neill's early career), or either of the retellings of the Cambridge Five (2003's Cambridge Spies, or 1977's superior Philby, Burgess and Maclean).
Dench's Joan is there merely to carry the framing mechanism, and honestly is onscreen so little that she adds very little to the tension – much, it must be said, like the flash-forwards themselves. Only her relationship with her son (Miles), a lawyer who must consider whether to represent her, provides any emotional connection, and that is passing. As for Cookson, she does nothing to add any real emotional depth or moral conflict to Joan. She's a cardboard cutout of virtue and good intention: She's the only researcher in a room full of (male) scientists who questions the use of the nuclear bomb, even though she has spent years working on it, and at one point, she actually berates charismatic and tousle-haired Russian activist Leo Galich (Hughes) for ruining "the purity of science" for her. She's absurdly noble, and the script pushes the ridiculous justification that she was just interested in establishing the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (the idea that if everybody has nukes then nobody will dare use them). Norwood was at least an unrepentant ideologue: Red Joan stands for nothing, and it's all the duller for failing to find even the slightest spike in this tale of duplicity. International intrigue has rarely been less intriguing.