Considering the resurgence of John Le Carre, slow-burn spy thrillers in recent years it seems like the perfect time for a film like Red Joan, a decade-spanning story of lies, duty and love. While it comes at a prescient time considering its message of nuclear proliferation, this Trevor Nunn film can’t quite seem to hit the right notes, using a playbook full of sex and murder in a story lacking in intelligence or justification.
Telling the story of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench/Sophie Cookson), an elderly woman who is arrested one day for crimes of treason. When she is interrogated she attempts to explain what led her to this point and the people and causes she believed in enough to find herself there. The tale of an idealistic scientist who found her way to becoming a political realist.
While it would be easy to say that Red Joan overfills its story with different ideas, that would be the sign of a film striving to do too much. Nunn’s film actively cuts itself off from the story it is trying to tell, instead framing Stanley’s journey behind a vanilla love story. While it reminds you right off the bat that Stanley is an adaptation, a re-imagining of Melitia Norwood, a real-life Russian spy who was only discovered in her 80s. However many of the facts here have been changed for dramatic effect. The problem with that isn’t the rewriting of history or how these changes sully the story, the issue here is that the changes are never utilised.
Never working as a piece of fiction thanks to a tone-deaf love story in two parts, it sporadically flips between two characters that never mesh, from the idealistic Joan of yesteryear to the cynical and broken woman she becomes. Neither seems to really comprehend who the other was or is, leaving you with two vastly different portraits. Ironically Dench’s picture of familial loyalty is more vibrant and colourful despite representing about 10% of the film’s run time.
Finding most of it’s ‘drama’ in the past, Cookson, despite her best efforts, finds herself stuck in an underdeveloped, soporific documentary, one that clings to scientific realism but can’t be bothered to provide enough detail to sell it. Despite riffing on the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, Joan never feels like an altruist although constantly telling us she is. Her justifications are muddied by her infatuation with communist recruiter Leo (Tom Hughes). Despite her high and mighty musings on how information should be shared she only seems to pass it on in the hopes of earning his love, a kind of hypocrisy that makes Joan pitiful, not laudable.
In fact, the main issue with the storytelling here isn’t the imbalance between its thematic work and the general plot, it is the fact that the film doesn’t seem to know the difference between love and sex. Joan is painted with a brush of a woman driven by lust thanks to an overabundance of sanitised sex that is supposed to convey passionate love. The concept of intimacy here is warped so much that it feels transactional.
Framed around coincidences and the feigned notion of intelligence, Lindsay Shapero’s script never deviates from the framework provided by the history books, instead of finding the artistic license in how little is known about the real Joan. However considering Ms Norwood was the jumping-off point, she is treated like a footnote, a concept, not a real person whose actions came with very real danger. In fact, the enigma she represents may well have been what drew people to the story in the first place.
Despite trying her best to live up the mystery of Ms Norwood, Red Joan cannot begin to live up to the promise of the unknown. Despite filling in the blanks with a story full of the kind of juicy plot detritus that has been shoehorned in for dramatic effect, it all seems so painfully boring.