Women are the spies in Red Joan, an engrossing World War II British tale that proves a country’s worst deeds can be accomplished by its meekest members. Fictionalized (from a novel) and dramatized (by the filmmakers), it’s based on the true story of Melita Norwood (1912-2005), whom Stalin considered his most important spy in Britain. Helmed by legendary Royal Shakespeare Company stage director Trevor Nunn, the film isn’t action-packed but instead is rich in performances, costumes, sets and explosive questions.
The story begins in 2000, one day after a knighted Foreign Office minister dies, when the press uncovers his tawdry secrets and MI5 arrests widow Joan Stanley (Judi Dench, glorious in her frumpy hair and deep wrinkles) for 27 breaches against the Official Secrets Act. Her outraged lawyer son protests — ah, yet another child who doesn’t really know his mother — but soon the mind-boggling truth comes out and, via plentiful flashbacks to the 1930s and ’40s and the development of the atomic bomb, the “Granny Spy” remembers.
As the Allies compete to develop the weapon without sharing research with the Russians, a brilliant, idealistic young Joan (played by the marvelous Sophie Cookson) enters the suspenseful political chaos. Having already fallen under the hypnotic glamour of a pair of Russian/German refugees, the physics graduate student becomes an assistant in the top-secret Tube Alloy project, thereby setting up the compelling drama of her inevitable turn. In the often hilarious sexist behavior of the times, no one pays Joan much attention, thus allowing her to act with impunity.
Once the war reaches its horrifying end, Joan makes her move, though the blindfolds she wears to the deceit and horror of Stalinism has its own intriguing consequences. Unexpectedly relevant today, Red Joan presents powerful conundrums to which the world still reverberates. Only the names and pace have changed.