Judi Dench, centre, in a scene from the movie Red Joan.
Judi Dench, centre, in a scene from the movie Red Joan. Nick Wall

MOVIE REVIEW: Spy drama should stick to the facts


Director: Trevor Nunn

Starring: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes

Running time: 109 minutes

Verdict: Espionage drama suffers from a split personality


Frail, meek, beige … it's hard to reconcile Judi Dench's elderly suburban widow, Joan Stanley, with her colourful former life as a Russian spy.

The disconnect between the two, parallel time frames is what makes this real-life drama so fascinating.

It's also what ultimately brings the filmmakers unstuck.

Played as a young woman by Sophie Cookson against a well-frocked period backdrop, Stanley is a green, first-year Cambridge University student who is introduced to the world of radical politics by her glamorous college mate Sonya (Tereza Srbova).

Sophie Cookson in a scene from the movie Red Joan.
Sophie Cookson in a scene from the movie Red Joan. Supplied

When she falls head-over-heels for Sonya's cousin, a Communist heart-throb named Leo (Tom Hughes), the young woman's politicisation coincides with her sexual awakening

In the heady context of this very specific time and place, it's not hard to see why Stanley might choose to supply nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union after serendipitously landing a job as a secretary in a UK government research laboratory during WWII.

In a volatile political landscape - Hiroshima and Nagasaki play a role in her decision - Stanley sees her actions as levelling the playing field.

But while there is a germ of truth in this nuclear deterrent argument, surely, with the benefit of hindsight, Stanley would have refined or modified her position.

Dench's subtle, nuanced performance successfully suggests that her character is carrying an awful lot of baggage, and I can't think of another actor who could make Stanley's mild-mannered dowdiness so compelling.

But is it really possible, in the 70-odd years since she committed that act of national treason, that Stanley harbours no doubts about her former ideological position.

Sophie Cookson in a scene from Red Joan. Picture: Transmission Films
Sophie Cookson in a scene from Red Joan. Picture: Transmission Films

When she eventually fronts the media - for which must summon every last ounce of courage - her pacifist defence sounds rather feeble.

Justification or rationalisation? Even the filmmakers aren't convinced.

Alongside Stanley's dull contemporary existence, Red Joan's flashbacks feel much more vital.

Passionate and pink-cheeked, Cookson's reluctant activist dresses in natty knitted hats and snug-fitting suits.

It's hard to believe they're the same woman, which is kind of the point.

But Red Joan is only very loosely based on story of the real "granny spy," Melitta Norwood, who didn't go to Cambridge, didn't study physics, and didn't relocate to Australia to protect her husband after changing her identity.

Unlike Cookson's English patriot, Norwood was a committed Communist who supplied the KGB with state secrets for more than 30 years.

Red Joan's romantic representation of its central character's early life is at odds with Dench's powerful, unvarnished performance.

Her backstory might have gelled a little better if the filmmakers had stuck more closely to the facts.


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