Review: 'Red Joan'

Judi Dench does her best to save a mediocre spy story
AGENT, 86: Judi Dench is Red Joan in the fictionalized version of the Melita Norwood case.

In May 2000, an aged British woman named Joan (Judi Dench) is puttering around her house when a squad of Special Branch police knock on her door, coming to arrest her on a charge of 27 counts of breaking the Official Secrets Act.

The John LeCarrean beginning of Red Joan is intriguing. Moreover, it has a basis in truth—Trevor Nunn's film is an adaptation of Jeanne Rooney's novel, itself a fictionalized version of the actual Melita Norwood case. And it's clear something was lost in the translation.

In flashbacks we see Joan's youth at Cambridge in the late 1930s; played by the pretty but uninvolving Sophie Cookson, she was a drab science student who got swept into a friendship with a dashing older student, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes).

The pair of dazzling foreigners are ardent Communists who try to recruit Joan into the party. Over the course of many decades, Joan is mixed up with them, carrying on an affair with Leo that lasts into the war years. Matters get troublesome when Leo presses Joan to spy for the Party; she's now an assistant to a research scientist (Stephen Campbell Moore). Her boss loves her, but he's trapped in one of those Graham Greene escape-proof marriages.

It's too easy to say Dench is this film's only redeeming value, yet it's too difficult to try to find other good points about this stodgy romance. Nunn's nostalgia for the coziness of England, from pristine tea shops to the smooching on the banks of the river Cam dilutes this story; the director couldn't have made wartime England prettier if he worked for Disney.

He speeds over the actual suspense—the incidents of Joan's spying—as if that were the least interesting part of the story. But Dench works her craft in her too-few scenes, sneakily changing before our eyes from an oatmeal-colored dodderer blanched in the too-bright lights of the cop shop to a keen conniver ready to extenuate herself. She has an argument for her treachery, and shaky as it is, Dench sells it at the end.

The real Norwood, rumored to have been a particularly valuable Soviet asset, was what they used to call a "red-diaper baby"—the daughter of Communist parents, born to the cause. Evoking sympathy for Stalinists is tough today, but Dench's speech at the end is as close as our cinema is going to get to a defense of the USSR.

Red Joan
R; 110 Mins.
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