Red Joan

This movie is not to be confused with Red Sonja, the classic mid-80s film starring the talents of Bridget Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This one stars the talents of Dame Judi Dench, although she’s not given an awful lot to do. She’s arrested at the start of the movie and it’s all shown in flashbacks to her younger days. We do see Dench give a lot of bewildered facial expressions. Although even in small doses, she shines. As does the young actress playing her — Sophie Cookson — who at times wears outfits and hair that remind you of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Cookson has a face and expressions that remind me of Reese Witherspoon and she looks, and certainly sounds, like she could be a young Judi Dench.

Joan is a student at Cambridge who starts hanging out with a communist crowd after going to a meeting/movie with her roommate’s cousin. He’s a good looking, persuasive Russian Jew named Leo (Tom Hughes). She graduates, and gets a job working for the government as an assistant. She pulls some Hidden Figures moves during a meeting in which scientists are trying to make a bomb more explosive. This quickly raises her up the ranks at the workplace.

One of the problems I had with this movie early on was that they really wanted us to have sympathy for Joan. Maybe because I already gave all my sympathies to the old dude that was the spy in Bridge of Spies (Mark Rylance, who went on to get an upset Oscar win for that role), but it’s the fact that I never really buy the story the movie is telling. Joan never seems on board with the communist cause, but yet she drinks coffee from a Che Guevara mug. And of course, she sees footage of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, so she feels…I don’t know…that the Russians should have one too? That way everyone plays nice?

The KGB feel she was the greatest British spy ever recruited, but we’re supposed to just feel bad because she’s an old lady that’s a wholesome pacifist. She merely got bamboozled by a guy that was seducing her, as well as her lover’s shady “cousin.” She’s just a poor naive little thing, that is often told by other scientists, things like, “You must be the tea lady” or “Hey, you’ll love the tumbler here. It’s great for when you do the laundry.”

Those few scenes remind me of one of my favorite movies of last year — The Wife with Glenn Close.

I’m sure the Jennie Rooney novel from 2014, was interesting, but this played like a sometimes boring biopic. It’s not that I need a spy story that has Tom Cruise jumping from buildings, or James Bond using gadgets he pulls out of his briefcase. This just needed a bit more.

At the end of the day, it was just a mediocre film on a very interesting woman with an amazingly crazy story to tell (despite it being told here dishonestly, I believe).

There’s a lovely score by George Fenton that fits the period piece nicely, and it’s handsomely shot by Zach Nicholson.

It’s interesting watching the young woman getting played by a couple in ways that make you feel how easy it could be to recruit a spy. Her barrister son (how convenient) is played nicely by Ben Miles.

It’s just a shame that it’s a rather inert production, since it’s dealing with spies, romance, and the bomb.

2 stars out of 5.



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