Red Joan (2019)
Red Joan (2019)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.

Release Date: April 26th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Trevor Nunn Actors: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Tereza Srbova, Laurence Spellman, Ben Miles




fter tending to her garden in London, elderly, unassuming Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is confronted at her door by the police, who promptly arrest her for 27 breaches of the Official Secrets Act. It’s May of 2000, and she’s being charged with treason due to a file kept on her in relation to the recent death of Sir William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), a suspected spy ring member whose activities involved passing sensitive information to the Soviets during WWII and its aftermath. And she has very little time to mount a defense.

Flashing back to Cambridge in 1938, a much younger Joan (Sophie Cookson) focuses on her physics schoolwork while many of her classmates – including Sonya (Tereza Srbova) – are more concerned with socializing and partying. When Joan is invited to a film night gathering of noteworthy people, she meets Sonya’s speechmaker cousin Leo (Tom Hughes) – one of a number of “communists,” who are part of a growing in-crowd. Joan is instantly drawn to the passionate intellectual, though she believes in withholding sex until they’re in love, while he’s not one to throw around that phrase lightly. As it so happens, however, when Joan finds out that Leo is heading to Russia for three months, she gives up the goods. War breaking out doesn’t help their budding relationship, as Leo’s Germanic heritage and his political stances draw unwelcome attention; and his insistence upon acquiring pieces of highly secretive information from Joan’s research on a “superbomb” for the British government puts her allegiances in quite the bind.

“Who politicized you?” It’s immediately problematic how many times the film cuts back and forth between the past and the present. Rather than telling the (inspired by a true) story in a straightforward manner, the picture transitions so incessantly that getting a grip on the characters, the jumps in years, and even current affairs is difficult. It’s a messy way to construct a film. Plus, it’s terribly unnecessary, especially when numerous shots simply show Dench looking sullen while silently reminiscing. It was likely employed to generate some sort of suspense, cautiously providing details on Joan’s prevailing consternations, but all it does is slow things down and generate feeble complexity.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Red Joan” is the historical background tale, which chronicles, momentarily, the race to create the war-winning hydrogen bomb. Unfortunately, its entanglement is merely a premise for character studies, romances (and the ways they can be used for manipulation), lifeless interrogation sequences, and dramatic conversations. The motives for subversion are also amusing, as they’re not black-and-white; rather than being based solely on predetermined affiliations and fealty, there are ethical considerations, particularly concerning how a bomb that can kill millions will be used – and on whom. And who should be in control of such awesome power? Is worldwide equality in weapons of mass destruction just?

“How could you have done this?” Since the heart of the matter is on Joan’s biography, audiences are forced to witness everything largely through her eyes. Yet this is awkwardly split between two timelines and two actresses, who never feel as if portraying the same woman, which stretches thin the opportunities for sympathy and cinematic apprehension. But for all the faults of editing and storytelling, Cookson gives a striking performance, crafting a believably conflicted, plied woman, full of fervor and conviction, and one who fascinatingly grasps the drawbacks – and the potential usefulness – of being invisible in a man’s world. The coda, which exposes the extent to which “Red Joan” is not a true story, heaps on a little more disappointment, however, working to undo Cookson’s redemptive turn; why couldn’t the filmmakers adhere their narrative closer to the facts to mold a more remarkable and educational thriller?

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10