“Red Joan” Review: Not Enough Drama, or Enough Judi Dench, in British Spy Story

Our first shot of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) in “Red Joan” is inauspicious enough. A librarian in a cozy cardigan. She’s pruning roses outside her small, neatly kept row house in a London suburb. But then there’s a knock at the door. And a charge of treason.

Unfortunately, director Trevor Nunn can’t match the rest of the film to this intriguing open. That in part because he loses Dench for so much it.

Nunn — who usually focuses on the stage, alternating between Shakespearean adaptations. And splashy productions like “Cats” and “Les Misérables” — does know how to craft a good-looking movie. He just doesn’t seem motivated to make a particularly challenging one. There’s a sense of missed opportunity hovering around the edges of this curious story. Which ought to be tense and complex but rarely is.

While sitting in the police station, trying to defend herself from choices made decades ago, Joan flashes back to those years. As a brilliant but sheltered young science student at Cambridge in 1938. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) falls in with a young group of Russian dissidents.

The glamorous Sonya (Tereza Srbova, “Strike Back”) introduces her to moody Leo (Tom Hughes, “Victoria”). With whom she begins a years-long affair. But he’s hard to pin down, and seems to turn up only when he needs something.

It’s not long before Joan can provide it. After graduation, she gets a job working on a top-secret atomic project.

Naturally, this is info Leo would love to pass on to his higher-ups. Joan, despite her loyalties to her boss, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), and regularly proclaimed affection for her own country, is happy to help.

Why? Who knows? Not Joan, it seems. Whose weak justifications never provide a believable explanation for the enormity of her ongoing actions. And not Nunn, who is unable to spark any passion despite so much potential.

Dench’s appearances are brief and underutilized. Which makes it more noticeable that the supporting actors are generally either miscast or misdirected. Srbova chews scenery like a silent-movie star who believes this will be her last best chance to be discovered. Moore’s role is designed to be unmemorable and is played as such. Hughes never finds Leo’s core essence (or accent).

Cookson is very good, but she’s too often left to perform in a vacuum.

Lindsay Shapero’s script — based on Jennie Rooney’s novel — neglects to build in the tension Cookson clearly aims to generate. The older Joan’s Che Guevara mug serves as a typically lazy substitute for character development. Too much is quickly suggested rather than deeply explored.

And crucially, Leo is so detached, Sonya is so narcissistic. Max is so milquetoast that we can’t understand why Joan would ever risk so much for those who give her so little.

On the other hand, Nunn seems to have made the movie expressly for those who prefer nostalgic prestige without any edges. And in that regard, he’s done very well. There’s a hazy, golden glow around the whole film that makes it easy watching. Composer George Fenton’s swelling score swoops us into every big moment.

And who doesn’t like to see attractive people in period costumes ordering crumpets. That in charming tea shops or flirting by the side of an Oxbridge river?

Nunn starts and ends the movie by noting that it was inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood. The KGB source known to British tabloids as the “granny spy.” By the time the film was finished, I felt ready to move on from these characters. But I was definitely ready to learn more about Norwood.

Unfortunately, for all that the film challenges sexism in these ways, it falls prey to it in others.

Those parts of the plot concerned with the politics and practice of espionage. That are frequently overshadowed by the romance themes, the result being more Mills & Boon than John le Carré. Every ten minutes Joan is swooning into somebody’s arms and her insistence that. It means nothing to her doesn’t carry much weight, resting as it does on a long tradition of film heroines getting feisty with the men they’ll end up sacrificing everything for.

This heavy signalling that she thinks differently because she’s a girl spy means she might as well have a bow on her head. Cookson makes her character so emotional in these moments that. It’s difficult to take her seriously when she insists she wasn’t unduly influenced – and if all we’re watching is a puppet serving somebody else’s agenda. That makes for a pretty bland film.

Red Joan is interesting where it takes on historical issues and explores the culture change between then. And now, quietly revealing the ways in which some aspects of political thinking have become more, not less. Restricted in the decades since the Second World War. Dench is solid as always, there are a couple of good supporting performances and those. Who really go in for bodice-rippers and tragic romance will probably enjoy themselves. Ultimately, though, there’s a lot less substance here than the premise suggests and fans of spy films, in particular, are likely to leave disappointed.

INFO:

Rating: R (for brief sexuality/nudity)
Genre: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Trevor Nunn
Stars: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore
Written By: Lindsay Shapero
In Theaters: Apr 19, 2019 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Aug 13, 2019
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: IFC Films

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR RED JOAN:

Paul Byrnes
In technical terms, it’s a proficiently made film by the evergreen Trevor Nunn — or it would be if it were not so determined to embrace all the cliches of the moment, both about British spies and films for women.

Adam Graham
This period drama is stuffy and slow, told in a clumsy way to justify Dench’s casting and presence, and is still a waste of her time.

Brad Wheeler
Although the story sounds fascinating – subterfuge! centrifuge! pinkos! – the film is cold fusion.

Moira MacDonald
Dench, in her limited screen time, gives us tantalizing hints of who this weary-looking woman, slumped by the weight of secrets, might be.

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