Arts

Film review: True-life spy story Red Joan a missed opportunity

Ben Miles and Dame Judi Dench in Red Joan
Damon Smith

INSPIRED by the true story of Melita Norwood, a septuagenarian dubbed the "granny spy" when she was publicly outed as a KGB source in 1999, director Trevor Nunn's tangled tale of wartime espionage rations substance over period style.

Dame Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson share the title role, investing respective incarnations of a morally conflicted heroine with steely resolve and wide-eyed innocence as her act of treason – sharing scientific data with the USSR during the Second World War – reverberates across time.

The complexities of Joan's dilemma, conjured in the shadow of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, are diluted by scriptwriter Lindsay Shapero.

Can you defuse tensions after decades of slaughter and suffering by weaponising all the major political forces with the same devastating technology?

Red Joan nibbles politely on the meat of opposing arguments in an era of paranoia, when women were repeatedly underestimated by virtue of their gender.

Dramatic tension dissipates as the film's chronologically fractured narrative fixates on an under-powered love triangle that operates as a broad metaphor for the ideological tug of war between East and West.

Softly spoken librarian Joan Stanley (Dench) diligently tends the bushes in her front garden and trades warm smiles with neighbours. She is just another ageing figure in terraced suburbia until two police detectives arrive unannounced and charge Joan with 27 counts of breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Joan's middle-aged son Nick (Ben Miles), a respected barrister, is dumbfounded when authorities accuse his mother of treason dating back more than 60 years.

As detectives attempt to extract a confession, Joan drifts into a fugue state of fractured reminiscence, flashing back to 1938 when she studied natural sciences at Cambridge. Naive, bookish Joan (now played by Cookson) is befriended by glamorous German Jewish student Sonya (Tereza Srbova), who introduces the shy fresher to her politically outspoken cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes).

He is a committed communist, who delivers rallying cries against Hitler and refers affectionately to Joan as "my little comrade".

Leo seduces the shrinking violet and implores Joan to share intelligence with the KGB when she begins top-secret work with Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) on Britain's atomic bomb programme during the Second World War.

"Nobody would suspect us. We're women," smiles Sonya conspiratorially.

Adapted from the novel by Jennie Rooney, Red Joan oscillates between two time frames, glimpsing events exclusively through the eponymous protagonist's eyes. Consequently, character development is restricted and key players vanish from this pedestrian drama when they slingshot out of Joan's orbit.

Dench possesses an innate ability to snag our affections even when the script doesn't give her anything interesting to impart. I spy a missed opportunity.

RED JOAN (12A, 101 mins) Thriller/Romance. Dame Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tereza Srbova. Director: Trevor Nunn

RATING: 5/10

Released: April 19 (UK & Ireland)

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