We missed Red Joan at the cinema, so tonight, searching Netflix, we’re pleased to see it’s now available to watch at home. Sadly, despite having Trevor Nunn at the helm and Dame Judi in the lead role, it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Actually, the disappointment is partly because of the Dame. Not that she puts a foot wrong, of course, just that she’s not given anywhere to put her feet at all. She has almost nothing to do.
Red Joan is very loosely based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a cold war spy whose crimes only came to light in the 1990s, when she was an old woman. Here, in a script by Lindsay Shapero based on a novel by Jennie Rooney, Norwood is reimagined as Joan, a Cambridge physics student, who falls for the glamour of the communist set, before landing a graduate job working on the H bomb. Dench plays Old Joan, an eighty-year-old woman living a quiet suburban life, whose sudden arrest is a shock to everyone around her, not least her barrister son, Nick (Ben Miles). But, as her interrogator (Nina Sosanya) barks questions at her, Dench’s role mainly consists of listening impassively, then twisting her lips and saying, ‘Well…’
And then, each time, we’re into flashback territory, and the real lead role is clearly Young Joan, played with aplomb by Sophie Cookson, who is clearly destined for major stardom. But not only is this a criminal waste of Dench’s talent, the repetitive structure makes the film feel lumpen and heavy.
It’s nicely acted by all concerned, and the period details are lovingly realised. There are some interesting moral questions raised; it’s a very watchable movie. But, overall, Red Joan doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not sharp enough, not bold enough. Perhaps it’s just too much of a compromise: too far removed from the real story to have any heft, Norwood’s less palatable tale neutered to make Joan’s actions more morally acceptable.
There’s a better way to tell this tale.