Red Joan




A very British spy in a tale which despite its real-life origin seems highly fictional.

Red Joan

Sophie Cookson


Red Joan, this film's titular figure, is Joan Stanley, a woman who went to Cambridge in 1938 and who, having studied physics there, was then qualified to take an important role in a company developing atomic weapons. Later she would continue to contribute to this research in Canada but, in reaction to the horror of what happened in Hiroshima, she was ready to use existing contacts to leak key information to the Russians in the belief that the best chance for world peace was for both East and West to have the bomb.


This is one of those films which, despite being based on a novel, declares that it was inspired by true events and at the close it does indeed indicate that the real Joan Stanley was one Melita Norwood whose work as a former spy for the KGB was revealed in 1999 when she was already in her eighties. That the film written by Lindsay Shapero should not actually use Norwood's name makes sense when one reads the statement in the closing credits which goes so far as to state that "the leading characters and the events involving them are fictitious".


The elderly Joan Stanley is played by Judi Dench who, although such a familiar presence these days, completely sinks herself into the role. Indeed, it is in the year 2000 that the film begins before making the interrogation of Joan by the Special Branch an excuse for extensive flashbacks in which the role of Joan is taken by Sophie Cookson. The continual cutting back and forth is rather tiresome, but the story thus told should have been a compelling one. Yet in the event it doesn't play that way since the political and moral issues that matter here are largely sidelined so that the film can offer not just one but two love stories: there's Joan's infatuation with the young Russian communist Leo (Tom Hughes) starting in their student days and the love for her declared by the research professor (Stephen Campbell Moore) whom she assists. As directed by Trevor Nunn, Red Joan lacks any sense of urgency while George Fenton's music score is of the kind that makes the love affairs and how they will be resolved come across as central to the entertainment. That Shapiro's dialogue is so redolent of fiction adds to the feeling that Red Joan is a pale shadow of what it should have been.


Tom Hughes as Leo is the dullest of lovers and Tereza Srbova playing his cousin cannot make her character seem real. Others fare rather better including Ben Miles as Joan's son (although the script gives him a contrived change of heart in keeping with the fictional feel of the whole thing) and Sophie Cookson in the most substantial role has a creditable stab at overcoming the weaknesses in her dialogue. But Dench alone is able to suggest an underlying truth so we never really mind when the historical narrative keeps being interrupted to bring us back however briefly to 2000. The downside of this is that Dench's truthfulness only serves to underline the lack of conviction everywhere else - that unexpectedly forthright statement in the end credits comes as no surprise but for the bluntness of the admission.




Cast: Judi Dench, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova, Debbie Chazen, Robin Soans, Stephen Boxer, Alfie Allen.


Dir Trevor Nunn, Pro David Parfitt, Screenplay Lindsay Shapero, from the novel by Jennie Rooney, Ph Zac Nicholson, Pro Des Cristina Casali, Ed Kristina Hetherington, Music George Fenton, Costumes Charlotte Walter.


Trademark Films/Quickfire/Embankment Films/Twickenham Studios/Cambridge Picture Company-Lionsgate UK.
101 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 19 April 2019. Cert. 12A.