Red Joan: the indefatigable Judy Dench is the spy who never got cold

Red Joan: the indefatigable Judy Dench is the spy who never got cold April 19, 2019

In other words, Soviet spy Joan Stanley (Dench and Sophie Cookson as the young Joan), doesn’t get caught until she’s too old to go to prison. She lives out her years in comfort as an OAP (old age pensioner in the UK or senior citizen as we say in the US). But when the British government finally catches up with her and arrests her on 29 breaches of the Official Secrets Act, Joan turns to her astonished lawyer son, Nick, (Ben Miles), for help.

Based on the 2014 novel by Jenny Rooney that itself is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood (1912-2005), ‘Red Joan” is a rather straightforward, though watchable, story of a brilliant young science student at Cambridge who becomes part of a trendy communist group. She is lured to become active in passing secrets to the Soviets by Leo (Tom Hughes who lays Prince Albert in PBS’ “Victoria”) who romances her into complicity.

During World War II and just after, working for MI5, she passes Britain’s nuclear formula for the atom bomb to the Soviets. She isn’t caught because, as what her recruiter Sonya (Teresa Srbova) says proves true: no one looks at women.

The film moves back and forth between past and present. What could have been just another spy movie loses its chance to become compelling drama when there are no consequences to Joan’s treason. This is the most intriguing and ethically complex part of the film.

This is a compelling enough drama about a woman who passed the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviets because they were allies, after all, and to create a balance of power. If both Britain and the Soviet Union had the bomb, then they wouldn’t use it because they would all die. In the film, Joan is convinced she has acted for the good of the world.

However, with the proliferation of nuclear arms, the current rebirth of the arms race and the “loose nukes” in unprotected stockpiles in some countries and those getting older and fragile with no way to dispose of them in the U.S., Joan, was, unfortunately idealistic, wrong and naive. The danger of nuclear arms is as serious as it ever was.

She is accused of treason but never punished.

While most critics are giving “Red Joan” lukewarm reviews, I have to say I was curious about the story and watched it with interest. Dame Judi Dench always gives a solid performance. Sophie Cookson is good, and Tom Hughes desperately needs a new hair style.

Just what the story brings to the archive of World War II fact-based dramas I am not sure. Will it win awards? Maybe but probably not. It does pose an interesting question, however. In what does treason consist? Who decides what is right or wrong in the nuclear age? The U.S. put Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death in 1953 for spying and giving the Soviets the secret to the atom bomb. But decades after the fact, Britain let a little old lady go home and live out her days in peace. (Not that I would want them to put her to death; just saying.)

If nothing else, “Red Joan” offers a lot to talk about.

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