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This 40s period piece tootles picturesquely along like a cold war, heterosexual version of The Imitation Game, the biopic of wartime codebreaker Alan Turing. There is the same prestige Britpic furniture: clipped vowels, kindly officer-class boffins, sexy smoulderers, brilliant women patronised by pipe-smoking, pint-quaffing chaps, illicit (straight) relationships in cramped rooms with a sixpence for the meter.
Red Joan is adapted by screenwriter Lindsay Shapero from Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, and directed by Trevor Nunn; the story is inspired by the case of Melita Norwood, the scientific researcher who was in 1999 unmasked as a Soviet spy. The film gives its “Red Joan” a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a much less ideological, more mainstream-friendly approach to cold war politics. Judi Dench is Joan in old age, a dithery but lucid old lady who is suddenly brought in for questioning by Special Branch officers who have been astonished to find her name in files handed over by a recent Soviet defector.
The questioning of course triggers extended flashback sequences at Cambridge, in which Sophie Cookson plays Young Joan, rather as Kate Winslet played young Iris Murdoch to Judi Dench’s old Iris in the 2001 film of the same name. Joan is the delectable naif who is dazzled by worldly, sophisticated student Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and through her makes the acquaintance of super-sexy Leo (Tom Hughes), a charismatic communist who appears nonetheless pro-war, an atypical defiance of the party line, which is a bit of historical fudging. While later working in the secret atomic research facility, she falls for attractive older professor Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), and is sufficiently horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki to want to turn over Britain’s nascent secrets to the Soviets.
Red Joan has a valid point to make: some spies were not pro-communist so much as pro-balance, pro-Mutually Assured Destruction, pro-peace. This is the case with Red Joan (though perhaps not quite with Norwood). But this story, though competently told, is brittle and cliched. Quite simply, there is not enough Dench, not enough Old Joan, not enough about how she feels about the decades of deceit, and tension, and becalmed ordinariness, far from the drama of espionage.
Source: The Guardian
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