Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” (2019)
Adapted from the novel of the same name which as the film acknowledges is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Britain’s so-called “Granny Spy”, “Red Joan” spins an intriguing fictional tale of a young British woman, Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) who in the late 1930s briefly flirts with socialism at Cambridge University and makes friends with two student Communist followers, Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) there. Joan is recommended by Leo to a secret British military physics project whose chief professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) hires her. The project is involved in working out the physics required to discover nuclear fission and eventually build an atomic bomb before the Americans do. While she resists at first, the eventual news of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinces her to change her mind and to pass on the secrets to Sonia. Amidst all of this, Smith becomes romantically involved with Leo at university and afterwards, and also with Davis who has long been estranged from his wife who refuses to consent to a divorce.
Eventually the British security forces become aware that British military secrets are being passed to the KGB and start hounding the unit where Smith works. Sonia flees Britain and Leo is found dead. Max Davis is arrested, charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act and is imprisoned. Smith does what she can to get Max out of prison and, by blackmailing a former university colleague, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara) who has achieved a senior position in the British Foreign Office, she and Max flee Britain with new identities as Mr and Mrs Stanley. For half a century afterwards, Smith’s treachery remains undiscovered until the early 2000s, when Mitchell dies and old government documents are declassified. The documents point to Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) as a long-serving KGB agent.
The story is told in flashback and pans back and forth between the present and the past as Joan Stanley reminisces to two British security officers about her past misdeeds in answer to their questions. Dench plays Stanley as a somewhat doddery old grandmother, the kind of slightly bemused elderly lady in whose mouth butter would stay solid; viewers may have some trouble matching the elderly Joan to Cookson’s more determined and steely character, but the lovable fuddy-duddy front falls away when Joan Stanley faces the press. The two actresses play their parts more or less well though Dench is clearly underused in her role. Cookson plays her intelligent but naive anti-heroine to the hilt. The rest of the cast is pigeon-holed into stereotyped backing roles: Sonia and Leo are portrayed as glamorous yet sinister, and the scientists Joan works with are obsessed with their own work to the exclusion of everything else, politics included. The modern-day British security forces are portrayed as efficient bureaucrats paying lip service to Diversity and Identity Politics.
In trying to develop the character of Joan Smith / Stanley as an anti-heroine viewers will sympathise with, the film waters down many aspects of Melita Norwood’s background – Norwood was a fervent Communist sympathiser – to the point of turning Joan Smith / Stanley into a bland generic character. As a result the decisions that the young Joan makes often seem bewildering and her justification for spying – that sharing knowledge is fair and, in the context of Cold War politics, has prevented the use of nuclear warfare for 50+ years – is very unconvincing. Stereotypical plot devices are used to tidy up the narrative: Sonia’s disappearance gives Joan a vital weapon with which she can blackmail Mitchell and very few viewers will believe the fantastically comical scheme in which Smith and Davis manage to escape Britain and flee to Australia. (At this point the film-makers decided not to explain how Joan later makes her way back to Britain.)
In spite of the use of flashback structuring to generate a sense of tension that should build up during the course of the film towards the present day, the film tends to be stodgy throughout its running time. Had British security forces been portrayed as sinister, menacing and violent towards both Joan and Davis, rather than as efficient, even sympathetic, the much-needed tension and fear could have been generated. The film fails to acknowledge the repressive and secretive nature of British society past and present, and to draw a parallel between this and Soviet repression and paranoia: the result is that the film, along with the other liberties it takes in reshaping the central character and her background, and in skirting other issues that arise about loyalty to one’s country when it conflicts with one’s ethics and values, does not rise above general mediocre entertainment.