Film Review: Red Joan

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Galloway Syndrome 

Red Joan, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better. Or, if you can’t – take the real life story of a Cambridge Spy who supplied atomic bomb secrets to the Russians in World War Two and fictionalise it, but in the most perfunctory and sentimental way possible.

Why, you ask, when you have the story of the grandmother spy, Melita Norwood – why not just dramatize that? Was the real story too complexed, too nuanced? Was it missing that special ingredient, beloved of movie audiences – namely sympathy for, and identification with, the main protagonist? Was Melita just a bit of a bitch who turned a blind eye to atrocities in the Stalin regime?

At least when Dennis Potter had a go at this sort of material, in his Play for Today, “Traitor” – he had the balls to make his Soviet agent in the foreign office a true believer; someone who’d been duped by the communist critique of the West. Sympathy for him came from knowing that a) he’d been brutalised by the British class system, so had developed a seething hatred and disdain for the establishment and b) was only now realising the extent of his mistake as he rotted in a cold Moscow apartment block.

Red Joan doesn’t quite have the Engels to make its fictional protagonist a Stalinist convert. The promise of the premise is close identification with a young woman, recruited at Cambridge, and pulled into the orbit of Soviet sympathy; a potentially relevant story in these politically confused times, when young people are being seduced by the politics of populism and demagoguery.

Instead, the film patronises its audience by having Sophie Cookson’s sweet and pretty Joan fall for the revolutionary on campus – a cold German émigré, spouting clichés. She’s convinced by him, and his political circle of friends, who envelop her; creeps that hound her wherever she goes (a sign they may not be interested in her company alone). In time she comes to believe that Stalin, despite those rumours of political persecution (read: murder), should have the bomb as a deterrent against Western aggression, thereby securing the peace.

“I was right though, wasn’t I?” a defiant Judi Dench screams at her barrister son, when the depth of her complicity comes to light fifty years later. Well, one doesn’t like to say that Russia nearly started a nuclear war by accident twice – the first time in 1983, and the second during Boris Yeltsin’s stint as president, or that Russia’s nuclear capability has licenced it to oppress its people, and those it deems to be its people, without fear of retaliation, but yes, the peace has held Joan – well done you for robbing the democratic powers of their short-lived military advantage in a world encircled by reactionary, oppressive forces.

Ultimately, Red Joan is a dull and plodding tale of a gullible woman and the men she ruined, apparently motivated by world peace. Trevor Nunn gets committed theatrical performances from the cast, as you’d expect, but as you’ve also anticipated, adds nothing approaching tension or style to what is allegedly a cinematic endeavour.

As this is a fictional account of spycraft, with invented characters filling in for their real world proxies, there was the opportunity to better tease Joan’s guilt or innocence, and muddy the water of her political sympathies as she sank deeper into the Soviet mire. Instead, Nunn does very little with the story – content to offer a period melodrama capped with a piece of heart tugging but trite and naïve moralising. Better dead than Red Joan.

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Country: UK

Year: 2019

Running Time: 101 mins

Certificate: 12A for keeping a suicide pin for 50 years, for falling in love with a man with no charisma who looks like a serial killer, and the misuse of sanitary towel packaging.

2 Responses

  1. Barbara Sirkus says:

    This critic missed the power of Judy Dench as an actress. There is never a line at the small independent theater we attend. Today there was a line and the theater was crowded. The movie was not dull and most everyone enjoyed it. The low rating Rotten Tomatoes gave(30%) was very misleading and incorrect. Critics sometimes write things just be critical for no reason.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Actually Barbara, no critic does that. What we get a lot of, however, are people who disagree with our reviews telling us they’re somehow illegitimate because they don’t agree with them – “you were minded to hate it before you saw it”, “you didn’t see it”, and your variation on a theme. I’m not sure how you know “everyone” enjoyed it, when the only evidence we have suggests the opposite.

      Though I didn’t miss Judi Dench, I could have done in this flick. She was largely wasted here. She’s only in the film for ten minutes or so, and isn’t given anything to work with. The RT score you cite is an aggregate of course, and it’s true this can inflate or undervalue a movie (because individual reviews can be more lukewarm or scathing than a simple fresh or rotten rating suggests), but I think 30% is fair in this instance. The film was an underpowered and predictable piece of work with no political or psychological intrigue.

      Thanks for reading.