Starring: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore
Director: Trevor Nunn
Running Time: 101 mins
Red Joan is a British film about an old woman who was discovered as the oldest KGB spy in the United Kingdom, and the story of her reasons for leaking nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Espionage isn’t always a field of high-octane thrills and deep deceit, but when it comes to the fight for secrets to unlock the most powerful weapon in history, there is absolutely a lot at stake.
And that’s what proves so disappointing about Red Joan, as it totally misses the mark in providing icy, suspenseful drama, making an espionage story with links to a major part of modern history seem really rather pedestrian. What’s even more frustrating is its obsession with romance, which is delivered in underwhelming fashion, missing out on what could have been a deeply poignant tale.
But we’ll start off, briefly, with the positives. As much as Red Joan fails to hit the target with its tension and intrigue, it does at least offer an interesting insight into the mechanics of the spy game in the years leading up to the Cold War. It’s not a simple case of the West vs. the East, but a more fluid and complex series of international relations that get very muddled with the Second World War still raging.
What’s more, the film is at least unique in its portrayal of the reasoning behind leaking state secrets. Although it doesn’t ever really come off as entirely sympathetic to its main character, it does at least offer up an interesting idea about why nuclear secrets would have been leaked to the Russians, stepping beyond the Cold War spy game and looking at a more global picture.
The problem, however, is that neither of those interesting themes are really played with properly. As I’ve said, the intrigue of a complex and convoluted game of simultaneous alliance and suspicion is more than enough to create real icy tension, but Red Joan just doesn’t bring that to life.
From the start, director Trevor Nunn seems committed to emulating the likes of The Theory Of Everything in a portrayal of scholarly romance against an ever-changing political backdrop, but in that ignores almost entirely the real stakes and gritty complexities of espionage. The film may be insightful, but it’s far from the hard-hitting dive into the spy game that it should have been, instead misguidedly obsessed with romantic drama where it really doesn’t play a large role.
Despite the charisma of lead Sophie Cookson, and her excellent chemistry with co-stars and romantic interests Stephen Campbell Moore and Tom Hughes, the romance is predictable, shallow and frankly not as relevant to the spy game as the film seems to think. As a result, the real significance of the story fades into the background, and is replaced by a hugely frustrating romantic drama with none of the same drama or stakes.
What’s more is that, in line with the film’s interesting revelations about why someone would reveal state secrets, Red Joan is actually a very personal story, yet it doesn’t give enough attention to the emotions of its main character. At a young age, she doesn’t feel like she’s really wrestling with her conscience ahead of handing over nuclear secrets to ‘the enemy’, and at an older age (when played by Judi Dench), you never get the sense that history catching up to her is of real, grave significance.
The non-linear narrative is partly to blame for that, as the film switches back and forth between a young Joan in the 1940s and an elderly Joan in 2000, undergoing interrogation upon discovery as a former spy.
The problem, however, is that by giving so much attention to the outcome of Joan’s actions so early in the film, the complexity and danger of her trading secrets back in the 1940s lacks the same power as if we saw her do it, and then try to keep her actions a secret, despite overwhelming inner emotional turmoil.
And what’s more is that the interrogations we see her go under at an older age are slow, uneventful and regularly spoiled by revelations we see back in the 1940s. If the film were told in a linear structure, then there would have been far more poignance to all these chickens coming home to roost, as we see Joan encroached on from all sides, finally being forced to give the game up.
It’s a frustrating fate for what could have been such a thrilling and powerful film. There’s no denying that Red Joan has a fascinating insight into elements of the spy game in the lead-up to the Cold War, but it misses the real significance of those ideas through its obsession with romantic drama. Its non-linear narrative also works against the development of the plot, ultimately playing into what is a disappointingly pedestrian retelling of a story with enormous historical significance, and that’s why I’m giving Red Joan a 6.4 overall.