Red Joan plays out a lot less riveting than the premise of the story would suggest. British old gal turns out to be a highly valued Soviet spy living amongst us selling state secrets for decades. Yet like Melita Norwood herself, which the story is based partly on, the picture casually goes about its business until gradually defining its true intentions.
Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley, a retiree in English suburbia who finds herself arrested at the dawn of this new century. Scotland Yard thinks they’ve got a traitor on their hands and begin to interrogate Joan about her past.
In flashbacks we see Joan (now played by Sophie Cookson) befriend two expat German Jews, Leo (Tom Hughes) and Sonya (Tereza Srbova) who are members of the communist party, while they’re all studying at Cambridge in 1938. Joan starts to develop feelings for Leo but any prediction that she was an easy recruit for the Soviets proves unfounded as the war beckons and Joan is not so easily manipulated.
The film is much more interested in not whether she sold state secrets, but why she would even consider it. That comes down to the relationships around her and what she sees happen during the war as a physicist working on Britain’s research into the atom bomb.
Dench, of course, is sublime as an old woman harbouring secrets and weighing up options but the movie really belongs to Cookson who gives a well-rounded performance. Young Joan is shy but smart, not so easily fooled or scared and the film gradually reveals she is her own woman.
The pacing is fairly slow, the filmmakers happy to take their time parsing out information and wanting to concentrate more on the relationships. Gender dynamics of the time are addressed and there is worldliness to the romances that take place in the story. The spy thriller aspects are dialled right down, tension wrung out of hiding things away quickly or figuring out clever ways to get objects past inspections. All done in the kind of low key manner that might have been how such things occurred in real life.
No flashy editing or shot framing takes place that draws attention to itself. There is a matter of fact approach to the craftsmanship here but it is effective. How much patience you will have may depend on how much you predict everything in the plot.
Yet the film does have something to say about the waste of war, the advent of nuclear weapons and the potential threat that remains from them. That is a pretty strong idea, as well as the idea of where your loyalties ultimately have to lie as an individual human being.
It takes a while to get there but Red Joan expands upon these ideas as it goes along and becomes increasingly involving as it moves towards the end. Helped by a pretty talented cast this spy tale doesn’t mark itself out as a classic of the genre, but it is workmanlike good.