Red Joan, 2019.
Directed by Trevor Nunn.
Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Tereza Srbová, Laurence Spellman, Kevin Fuller, Ciarán Owens, Stephen Campbell, and Moore Ben Miles.
The story of Joan Stanley, who was exposed as the KGB’s longest-serving British spy.
Scientists and physics experts being exploited for the purposes of war generally make for fascinating character studies, and on paper the story of Joan Stanley/Red Joan (directed by Trevor Nunn from a script written by Lindsay Shapero, but most importantly inspired by the life of Melita Norwood) appears to be a worthwhile exploration of a relatively unknown figure. Rather than functioning as a spy movie about a betrayal of one’s country, it operates on the basis of morality and doing what one feels is right to prevent the very makers of catastrophic destruction from being eager to drop atomic bombs on one another willy-nilly. There’s also promise in casting the great Judi Dench and the rising Sophie Cookson playing the parts of Joan at respective points in her life.
Unfortunately, it’s not long before the negative vibes come settling in, as Red Joan adopts an uninspired and bland formula of flipping between past and present as present-day Joan is interrogated for her past crimes following the passing of an important colleague, with each inquiry allowing the film to dive right into the past and show things from her own young and naïve and unknowing (at this point in time the verdict on Joseph Stalin was somewhat up in the air) perspective. As the sessions go on, health problems arise for present-day Joan, rendering the whole thing one terrible cliché.
However, a far greater crime than anything this altered historical figure ever did is how badly the material here lets Sophie Cookson down, who is fine in the popular Kingsman franchise to the point of showing promise for leading roles, even if they are the blandest style of biopics. Instead of really getting into the psyche of this woman and the complex choices she had to make while working for the KGB, Red Joan gets so caught up in her romantic life that it feels like the choices she makes come from love and not the greater good of the world. Obviously, having a fling with a communist party sympathizer and another passionate relationship with one of her superiors are going to influence her decisions on some level, but they don’t need to be the entire movie. By the time Judi Dench is professing to her son (who has been kept in the dark about all of this) that she never betrayed her country and that she was trying to make the world a better place, it rings hollow considering so much of the movie is fixated on the on-and-off intricacies between her and her significant others.
There’s also a bafflingly unnecessary shot of nudity from Sophie Cookson that feels like some sort of desperate attempt to make a few more bucks at the box office (not that the movie is going to make much, but still). Rarely do I ever harp on these things, but there are three moments of physical intimacy in the film with two of them being implied sexual intercourse that cuts to the next day before anyone can undress. Meanwhile, one of them cuts to a gratuitous 2-3 seconds shot of Sophie Cookson nude before cutting once again to the next day. Maybe the filmmakers shot an entire sex scene that they felt was not needed but also didn’t want to go to waste, but if that’s the case why not just show the whole thing? A 101-minute movie would only be extended by another minute. Also, it’s not a prudish thing at all; it’s just awkwardly edited to the point of worth questioning the intentions behind it.
That might only be a small problem within the direction though, as the main blunder with Red Joan is that it’s just not very engaging. The story of this woman is interesting and the events that unfold are mildly intriguing, but it’s also just coasting along from plot point to plot point with little pop in terms of narrative execution or cinematic flair. It’s about as exciting as reading Wikipedia, which is frustrating considering the standoffish nature and harrowing results of building atomic bombs should generate concern and emotion. Not even the small scene of young Joan watching footage of the Hiroshima bomb dropping elicits any kind of reaction; it’s another groan-worthy amateur hour directorial decision.
It also must be said that the present day//flashback juxtapositioning doesn’t add anything to the character, mostly because Judi Dench is going through the motions while Sophie Cookson, despite being a letdown at every narrative juncture, is looking for anything to cling onto and get us invested in the character and story. She does is find a job as anyone can with such little to work with; hopefully in the future, she receives better starring roles for more tantalizing projects. Red Joan is not a horrible movie by any means, but one with its focus in all the wrong places and containing no urgency to anything going on.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com