Red Joan

Movie Information

Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson are superb in this fact-based World War II British spy drama.
Genre: Biopic/Drama
Director: Trevor Nunn
Starring: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson
Rated: R

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.

About Marcianne Miller
Marcianne Miller worked production in Hollywood for many years and wrote movie reviews In L.A. and Asheville, radio and print including Mountain Xpress (during Ken Hanke's first 5 years), Rapid River and Bold Life. Member: SEFCA and NCFCA.

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3 thoughts on “Red Joan

  1. John Owen

    I do not mean to discourage your promising writing career, and we certainly do live in interesting times, but I think you would actually be hard placed to actually find current examples of the conundrums that Red Joan lived through. Misplaced loyalties leading up to, during, and after WWII, specifically the Red Scare had proven actual cases of ordinary Americans who consorted and aided the “enemy”. Oh, there is a Russian scare at the moment, but the level to which it has been intentionally orchestrated this time compared to the first Cold War is been justified not on any mass social movements, not on any major ideological dissonance. This time its based on the outrage of a US domestic political crisis, shock and outrage directed at the most powerful office in the land.

    American politics have been defined by this outrage now for only two years so far, and the names of the participants who could be compared to Red Joan would be exactly who? The names in the news are totally partisan. We have only two clearly defined sides, and no one on the fence is even suspected of directly aiding and abetting the Russians, unless by supporting the president, they do so. The worst case scenario would be misinformed people who have taken the partisan position in favor of the president. Worse, anyone who has not been convinced to be anti-Russia are being given the McCarthy treatment even when they are openly critical of both Trump and Putin. This witch hunt is based purely on the notion of thought police, there is no physical counterpart, there is no actual consorting with the enemy by anyone outside of Trump’s devoted inner circle, and even then, it remains possible that any consorting that has been noted could very well be the plain variety of Pay to Play that has come to define all business and political relationships, which can no longer be told appart. This time, Russia has been made the boogeyman without an actual smoking gun other than Russia openly disapproves of a US foreign policy, a US military industrial complex, that has done nothing to make Americans safer, and is doing everything to bring more war after wasting trillions on these misadventures that enriched a class of American oligarchs during the last two decades while creating refugee crises, and destroying untold life and property. Besides bailing out the banks, the wars make up the biggest component of over $20 trillion of debt that are threatening to bury future generations. There are real threats to America that these wars have left us much less able to address. The manufactured consent to support the Russia hate should not be compared to the conundrums that Red Joan was experiencing. The geopolitics that shaped her life had not been invented by Washington think tanks seeking to extend US hegemony and support bloated military budgets.

  2. Marcianne Miller

    Dear John, Thank you for your comments. Alas, they are too lengthy and complex to answer in the movie review section. I urge you to find a more appropriate venue for your views. I stand by my review, as I have by everything I’ve published for the past 20+ years. Thank you again. mm

  3. Christina E Dickson

    Bravo, Marcianne, for your insightful review of Red Joan! Based on your review, I went to the Grail to see the movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am a fan of spy stories and also of Judi Dench, but Sophie Cookson’s performance was a fun surprise, too. And the screenplay was excellent–I could NOT figure what was going to happen next! I only wish I had thought to leave this comment 3 weeks ago when the review first came out; maybe more people would have gone to see Red Joan and it might have stayed around longer… *sigh*

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