by Raquel Stecher
dir. Trevor Nunn
Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes
Trevor Nunn’s latest film Red Joan is a mishmash of history and fiction. Inspired by the true story of British KGB agent Melita Norwood but mostly fictionalized, the story follows Joan Stanley, a chemist whose smarts land her a spot on the scientific team developing the technology for a nuclear bomb. On that journey she meets Sonya (Tereza Srbova) whose brother Leo (Tom Hughes) is an outspoken Communist activist. With Sonya’s alluring worldly charm and Leo’s handsome bravado, Joan gets caught up in their world. She meets scientist Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), head of the aforementioned scientific team. Joan is torn between her steamy yet dangerous romance with Leo and her blossoming feelings for the still married Max. She also faces a great dilemma. With England completely enveloped in WWII, Joan decides that only an even playing field between England and Russia can set things right. The movie darts back and forth from 1938 to the story’s present day, circa 2000 when Joan (Judi Dench) is being interrogated for her “crimes” and her lawyer son (Ben Miles) must come to terms with his mother’s legacy and the secrets she’s been harboring all these years.
Most critics agree that Red Joan lacks from having too little Judi Dench in it. I for the most part agree. However, I don’t see how this would have worked because, for the purposes of the movie, viewers needed the full backstory of Joan circa late 1930s and early 1940s for us to fully grasp what’s happening to her in 2000.
Red Joan felt like a 1990s period piece and that made me nostalgic for that decade’s historical offerings. A feminist message is inserted, almost haphazardly, to make it more up-to-date. But overall the movie felt old-fashioned in a bad way. The story dragged on and the film felt overly long.
With that said, there is a lot to enjoy in Red Joan for those who love a good period piece with a strong female lead. Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench deliver superb performances. Cookson’s Joan is bright-eyed and cautious. Judi’s Joan is world weary. For anyone who relishes period detail, this film has a lot to offer especially with the elegant 1940s era apparel.
Red Joan is a throwback to a golden era of period pieces but it lacks some modern flair needed for contemporary viewers.
I attended a press and industry screening of Red Joan at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.