Red Joan centers on a woman who’s completely torn down the middle. She’s torn about which man she’s in love with. She’s torn about which country she should serve. Above all else, though, she’s torn about her past actions and whether she made the right decisions. Fittingly enough, Trevor Nunn’s film itself is bound to tear audiences down the middle. On one hand, this is a well-crafted, effectively acted drama with an intriguing real-life figure at its core. At the same time, Red Joan could’ve presented a much deeper portrayal of its protagonist had the screenplay been less one-sided.
The story is inspired by the life of British civil servant Melita Norwood, who is referred to as Joan Stanley here. In present day, the elderly Joan is played by Judi Dench. Although she seems perfectly innocent on the surface, Joan lands in hot water when a defected KGB archivist gives her up to the British Secret Service. At first, Joan denies the accusations that she’s a former KGB spy. As the evidence continues to pile up, however, it becomes clear to the quote unquote “Granny Spy” that her cover’s been blown.
Dench is solid as always, the but film really belongs to Sophie Cookson, who plays Joan during her youth at Cambridge. Joan is an irrefutably intelligent woman, especially when it comes to physics, but she’s often overlooked due to her gender. Two men who can see there’s more to Joan than meets the eye are her boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore) and a charismatic communist named Leo (Tom Hughes). Joan eventually becomes romantically involved with both men, but Max makes it clear that his wife will never give him a divorce. Leo, meanwhile, tries to bring Joan over to the side of communism, which she initially resists. As tensions rise during World War II, however, Joan sees the opportunity to bring balance to the battle field.
With access to the British atom bomb plans, Joan passes nuclear secrets on to Soviets, enabling them to create their own bomb. Joan’s mentality is that if both sides are equally equipped, no bombs will be dropped. Cookson’s performance paints an authentic portrait of a woman with an unbelieve moral dilemma. Even if we don’t agree with Joan’s actions, we still identify with her reasoning and begin to contemplate what we’d do under similar circumstances. Like Oliver Stone’s Snowden, though, the film makes the mistake of glamorizing its subject in the end.
Both Edward Snowden and Melita Norwood are both divisive figures, but their films portray them as unsung heroes. Red Joan would’ve worked better had it taken an antihero route, but the filmmakers at times seem too eager to champion Norwood’s deeds. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies did a much better job in its depiction of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, as well as the controversy surrounding him. Spielberg’s film made us sympathize with Abel, but it didn’t excuse his actions either. The same can be said about the main characters of The Americans. Nevertheless, Red Joan is an informative and engaging film that’s worth checking out, even if it’s shy of being the fascinating character study we could’ve gotten.