Red Joan (United Kingdom, 2019)

April 18, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Red Joan Poster

Somewhere buried in the structurally unsound and unevenly paced Red Joan, there exists the material for not only one but two intriguing motion pictures. Unfortunately, neither manages to struggle to the surface and we’re left with a mediocre mash-up of an old-fashioned spy movie and the story of a son coping with the sins of his mother.

One evident problem relates to the manner in which the narrative has been structured. The movie tells the story of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), an 80-ish woman who is unexpectedly arrested on her doorstep for violating the Official Secrets Act. For the next 95 minutes, Red Joan flashes back and forth between 2000 and the 1940s, when Joan (Sophie Cookson) is a graduate student at Cambridge. Although there’s nothing unique in having chronologically discrete sequences bookend the main story, Red Joan looks in on Old Joan every 10-to-15 minutes for no apparent reason other than to remind viewers that Judi Dench is the movie’s star. The frequent ping-ponging of timeframes interferes with the movie’s ability to catch and hold the viewer during either the World War II segments or the turn-of-the-century ones.

As we learn during the flashbacks, Joan, while at Cambridge, flirts with Communist ideology after becoming friendly with the sophisticated Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and entering into an affair with her cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes). When asked to do a “favor” for the party and make copies of top secret documents she has access to, Joan refuses…but later changes her mind after the United States drops A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her reasoning: the world will be a safer place if the USSR’s nuclear weapons technology achieves parity with that of the West. (This philosophy was later codified as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – during the Cold War.) So she provides sensitive information to Leo and Sonya, who funnel it to Stalin’s top scientists.

Joan’s secret remains buried for fifty years. However, when a key member of the Cambridge inner circle dies, newly-discovered documents reveal Joan’s participation in the ring. She must then not only answer the questions of investigators but justify herself to her skeptical son, Nick (Ben Miles), who is forced to struggle with new revelations about the mother he never really knew.

Better paced and with a less abridged narrative, the 1940s segments of Red Joan could have made for a spy thriller in the John Le Carre or Len Deighton mold. The elements are in place but, by pulling us back to the future far too often, the movie defuses tension and the flashback scenes accrue a pedestrian quality. The meat of the 2000 era portion isn’t so much about answering the questions surrounding Joan’s complicity as it is about illustrating how her son, a respected barrister, copes with learning the unsavory truth about his mother. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t devote enough time to these scenes for Nick’s moral dilemma to play out as more than a perfunctory afterthought and the way it is resolved feels too pat.

There are other minor quibbles. Although Dench and Sophie Cookson give strong performances, they often don’t seem to be playing the same character. The most forceful linkage between the two is provided by director Trevor Nunn, who composes fade shots to enforce the connection. There are also questions about the logic of Joan’s motivations and a shocking naivete on the part of both her and her professor/lover, Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore).

Period detail is one of Red Joan’s strengths and, with the possible exception of Tom Hughes, whose Leo is more smarmy than seductive, the acting is consistently good. The movie is based on a novel written by Jennie Rooney, which in turn was inspired by the real-life case of Melita Norwood. Although the story (and its factual antecedent) is interesting, the presentation isn’t. Individual scenes work but the movie as a whole doesn’t. One can understand why, despite the involvement of an Oscar-winning actress, Red Joan isn’t getting much attention.

Red Joan (United Kingdom, 2019)

Director: Trevor Nunn
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles
Home Release Date: 2019-10-08
Screenplay: Lindsay Shapero, based on the novel by Jennie Rooney
Cinematography: Zac Nicholson
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2019-04-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1