Based on a true story, Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan is an absorbing wartime drama about a spy ring. It opens in 2000 with Joan (Judi Dench), a pensioner happily tending her roses. Shocked by her unexpected arrest for alleged treason, she is forced to recall her Cambridge University years.
In the late 1930s, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is studying physics. She is befriended by Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a flamboyant language student, and falls in love with Sonya’s cousin Leo (Tom Hughes). Both are Jewish and ardent socialists. Leo is a charismatic speaker and Joan, swiftly in his thrall, accompanies him to various student meetings and film screenings. It soon become clear, however, that she is secondary to Leo’s political affiliations. As older Joan tries to assure MI5, she had been devoted to her studies and attending a few rallies hardly makes her a traitor.
Nunn tracks back and forth between Joan’s interrogation and her past. During the war, Joan works as a PA in a top secret science laboratory developing Britain’s atom bomb. She grows close to her boss, project director Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), and they travel to Canada together on a research trip. He declares his love for her, but he’s married and admits that his wife will never leave him. Against her better instincts, Joan continues to see Leo who persists in trying to persuade her to pass on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. She is adamant that she won’t betray her country but finds herself conflicted when the Americans cause nuclear devastation in Hiroshima.
Initially, Joan comes across as rather plain, earnest in her work and hopelessly naïve in love – forever drawn to the wrong men. Sonya, a vampish KGB operative with a passion for mink coats, is far more dashing. She’s sexually assured and politically self-possessed; everything Joan is not. However, it is not long before Nunn, known for his theatrical ingenuity, turns things on their head. By the end, Joan has far more to lose than Leo and Sonya and reveals her mettle when faced with office searches and the arrest of Max.
Inspired by Jennie Rooney’s book about real-life KGB spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is essentially character driven. Although Dench is pitch-perfect, and Cookson gives an equally affecting performance, the police interviews are repetitive and interrupt the film’s main focus. The winning over of Joan’s barrister son (Ben Miles) injects an unnecessary note of mawkishness and one can’t help feel that the time devoted to this secondary narrative is more about Dench’s box office draw.
Red Joan is unlikely to appeal to younger audiences and many may find the wartime plot, setting and slow-paced romance old-fashioned, but it will win fans because there is much to admire: The solid acting, Lindsay Shapero’s deft screen adaptation, Zac Nicholson’s evocative cinematography, accompanied by George Fenton’s original score. The attention to period detail is also excellent, in particular Charlotte Walter’s wide range of costumes and hats. The production crew add some delightful visual clues – Joan’s Che Guevara mug is particularly apt.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop