On paper, Red Joan seems to tick all the necessary boxes for an exciting spy movie: there’s betrayal, sex scandals and shocking deaths. And yet, as directed by Trevor Nunn, this tale of a British civil servant selling secrets to the Russians is bland and conventional when it should be suspenseful and provocative.
Adapted from Jennie Rooney’s novel that’s based on the real life story of Melita Norwood, Red Joan opens with the arrest of retired librarian Joan Stanley (Dench) after the death of a colleague reveals her suspicious ties to the KGB. As she recounts her story to the authorities we flit between a present-day interrogation room and 1930s Cambridge as a younger, initially timid Joan (Sophie Cookson) is all too easily recruited by her Communist classmate Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), whom she falls for. Later, when Joan joins a top-secret British programme to build nuclear weaponry, her comrades persuade her to leak classified intel to Russia.
That we have to wait until Red Joan’s final moments to get a sense of its protagonist’s calculating and ultimately prescient motivations for betraying her country — she believed if Russia also had a nuke it would stop the superpowers from bombing each other — speaks to the flaws in Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay. Instead of exploring that underdeveloped thread we get a romance that’s more tepid than passionate, and indeed, it’s easier to believe that Joan did it out of love given that she falls for Leo’s unconvincing seductive tactics time and time again.
While the narrative leaves much to be desired, the two central performances are at least beyond reproach. The back and forth transitions do well to create a full picture of Joan, and while Dench is not given a lot to work with she gives her a likeable earnestness that shines through. The bulk of the screen time falls to Cookson and she acquits herself well, both convincing as a younger Dench and a shy student who slowly comes into her own.