Red Joan

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

Red Joan
dir Trevor Nunn
scr Lindsay Shapero
prd David Parfitt
with Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova, Freddie Gaminara, Kevin Fuller, Ciaran Owens, Stephen Boxer, Robin Soans, Laurence Spellman
release UK 19.Apr.19,
US Apr.19 sfiff
18/UK 1h41

dench hughes miles

cookson and moore
While this film may be worth seeing simply for the force of nature that is Judi Dench, its terrific true story is watered down by a script that's melodramatic and choppy. Venerable stage director Trevor Nunn has created an eerily generic period thriller, only rarely finding an original angle to convey events that should have been thrilling and surprising.
In 2000, MI5 officers raid the home of 80-something Joan Stanley (Dench) accusing her of once working as a Soviet spy. She denies this but recounts events from 1940 Cambridge when she (then Cookson) was a top science graduate whose friends included the lovely Sonya (Srbova), aristocratic William (Gaminara) and broodingly sexy Leo (Hughes), with whom she falls in love. During the war she works on a secret atom bomb programme, and passes the plans to Sonya to give to the Russians. Now her son Nick (Miles), a barrister, wants to know why.
The reasons behind Joan's actions are actually quite compelling, but the script drags out the final revelations by spending rather a lot of time on her torturous romantic entanglements with both Leo and her married but devoted boss (Moore). These sequences, as well as several clunky moments in which her brilliant mind is pointedly underestimated, are so corny that they undermine the larger story about her political actions and what they mean in the larger scheme of things. In a nutshell: she's not a Commie operative, she's saving the world.

Dench gives her scenes plenty of internal energy, bringing Joan to vividly textured life in a way that's never offered to Cookson. Instead, the younger actress is only asked to play Joan's more obvious sides, incongruously dithery and romantically compromised even if her razor-sharp intelligence is never in doubt. At least she has some chemistry with Hughes, because the scenes with Moore never catch fire. But then none of the other actors in the film's period scenes can overcome the flood of picturesque cliches.

It's also a bit problem that, as the film cuts back and forth between past and present, the overall narrative loses most of its momentum. There are some nicely intriguing scenes here and there, some enjoyably shifty characters and several excellent twists in the tale. But the rising swamp of sentimentality in the final act and screenwriter Shapero's insistence on shouting the central message more than once leaves the audience groaning. Basically this fascinating series of events gets completely lost in the clumsy storytelling.

cert 12 themes, violence, sexuality 27.Mar.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall