'Red Joan': Film Review | TIFF 2018

A taut old-school thriller with a modern heroine.

Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson portray the woman who passed the key to Britain’s atom bomb to the Soviet Union in Trevor Nunn’s drama, inspired by the true story of KGB spy Melita Norwood.

A good old-fashioned British spy thriller in the scientific mold of Enigma, with a bewitching female heroine (or anti-heroine, if you will) played by the excellent actresses Judi Dench and (as her younger self) Sophie Cookson, Red Joan revisits the incredible real-life spy case of Melita Norwood. It is directed with a strong sense for character by Trevor Nunn, the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Co. whose rare excursions into film include woman-centered works like Hedda, Lady Jane and Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. After its Toronto premiere, this well-rounded piece has the cards in hand to find a happy niche with audiences.

Certainly, this isn’t the kind of adrenaline-pumping spy film laden with exploding buildings and the protagonist leaping out of skyscrapers. But it isn’t a sedate film either, and stakes couldn’t be higher: the balance of power between the West and the communist bloc at the end of WWII. Based on Jennie Rooney’s bestselling novel, Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay cleverly plays with the ostensible staidness of ordinary pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), a woman in her 80s living a quiet suburban life who is abruptly arrested as a Soviet spy in the opening scene, set in 2000.   

It’s also a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age. Though she claims to have been frightened out of her wits the entire time she was stealing classified documents from her laboratory, which was engaged in developing Britain’s atom bomb during the war, onscreen the young physicist Joan Stanley (Cookson) demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction. As an elderly woman, she still has these qualities, which make her every inch a heroine, despite the sinking sensation that comes from seeing the bomb being handed to Stalin on a silver platter.

The story back-and-forths between the icy interrogation of the elderly Joan, who initially denies everything, and her memories of what really happened. Since much of the past is intertwined with her love affairs, it’s uncertain how much of the flashbacks she’s actually telling the police, leaving the audience with the satisfaction of knowing more than the investigators.

Joan is a mousy physics student at Cambridge in 1938 and still a virgin when glamorous fellow student Sonia (Czech actress Tereza Srbova) crawls through her window late one night to avoid the house mother. It’s a fateful meeting. Sonia and her dashing cousin Leo (Tom Hughes) are German Jews and committed communists. They draw Joan into their student meetings, which she attends primarily to spend time with Leo. He’s an idealist and political firebrand who leads rallies against Hitler and yearns for “a chance to rebuild civilization in a totally new way,” and it’s easy to see why the girl falls into his arms one night, with Sonia’s crafty encouragement. Though never named, the Cambridge Spy Ring, which included the infamous Kim Philby, hovers in the background.

The scene shifts to a secret government laboratory run by the charming professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore, The Child in Time), who also rosily views the Soviet Union as allies but lacks Joan’s naivete and idealism. For him, scientists are not politicians; for her, they can't ignore the practical effects of their work. She becomes his invaluable assistant and, eventually, his lover, complicated by the fact he’s married and his wife refuses to give him a divorce. The romantic bits of Red Joan are a far cry from James Bond-type serial sex with glamorous partners in evening dress. Shown from a young woman’s POV, Joan’s romances with Leo and Max are the believable affairs of a woman looking for love and marriage, not adventure.

As the older Joan remembers it, the British government agreed to set up a nuclear fission facility in Canada to keep up with American experiments on building a war-ending bomb. It is on their dangerous Atlantic crossing aboard a destroyer that Joan and Max realize their love for each other, though he’s too much the gentleman to pursue a doomed affair.

It wasn't love or adventure that finally made Joan give in to Leo and Sonia’s pleading and begin passing state secrets to her handlers. As she tells the interrogators and her barrister son Nick (Ben Miles), who has incredulously joined her, it was the news that the Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Unlike the real spy on whom she is based, who passed secret documents to the Soviets out of pure communist conviction, Joan reasons that the only way the world can be at peace is to create nuclear deterrence between the superpowers, putting the bomb in both their hands so neither can strike the other without disastrous consequences. This theory was first proposed in the late 1950s and it’s a stretch to believe it can be her motivation. On the other hand, Dench and Cookson portray Joan as being so smart in an unshowy English way that one can, for the space of the film, suspend disbelief and see how things turn out for her, Max, Leo and Sonia.

Casting is right on the mark and Dench’s dignified retired spy reverberates with her flashier role as M in Skyfall. Her stiff-necked son may think it all preposterous, but when the old lady fetches him a coffee in a Che Guevara mug, she gets a liberating laugh. And Cookson, who passes perfectly for Dench at 20 with the additional appeal of ripe youth and an infectious Lauren Bacall smile, makes a natural segue from her secret agent roles in the Kingsman films.

Zac Nicholson’s cinematography is warm and involving like production designer Cristina Casali’s quaint woody laboratories, as behooves the sub-genre of British spy yarns. George Fenton’s romantic score and Charlotte Walter's charming costumes well describe the mood of the time.

Production company: Trademark Films
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes
Director: Trevor Nunn
Screenwriter: Lindsay Shapero, based on Jennie Rooney’s novel
Producer: David Parfitt
Executive producers: Ivan Mactaggart, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Zygi Kamasa, James Atherton, Jan Pace, Kelly E. Ashton, Karl Sydow
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music: George Fenton
World sales: Embankment Films
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
110 minutes