What we have with “Red Joan,” British theater director Trevor Nunn‘s adaptation of the inspired-by-a-true-story novel by Jennie Rooney, is a rare case of the old-lady, modern-day framing device being more fun and compelling than the actual story, or as I like to call it, a reverse-“Titanic.” The events that loosely inspired the novel (so loosely that it’s arguable whether Melita Norwood, the real-life counterpart of the eponymous Joan should be mentioned at all, let alone trundled out in Serious End Titles to give the project some legitimacy) were most extraordinary for the way they ended: with an 87-year-old Norwood confessing to decades of treason to the assembled media on the front lawn of her suburban English home. That scene appears in “Red Joan” too, with significant deviations as to the duration, nature, and motivations of her crime, and it gives Judi Dench a great showcase moment, oscillating between frail piteousness and steely self-righteousness. But that only serves to illuminate the drabness of the rest of the film: that’s right, in “Red Joan,” high-level A-bomb espionage and doomed romance somehow run a distant second in intrigue to Dench pruning her rose bush under a nosy neighbor’s eye or drinking tea from a Che Guevara mug.
Most of the time, you see, we’re not with Dench’s Joan but with Sophie Cookson, as the “Kingsman” actress plays the drippy 1930s/40s version. Cookson is appealing enough and certainly has the if-you-really-wanted-Keira-Knightley-only-5-years-younger market relatively cornered, but if she has dramatic clout or magnetism, it’s not really given a chance to show here. Young Joan, as written in Lindsay Shapero‘s cornball adaptation, has all the interiority of a marmite sandwich and spends most of the film pinging prettily, not between ideologies or governments, but between, natch, romantic interests. One can believe she grows up into Dench’s querulous but doughty matron almost as much as one can believe a baby sparrow can grow up into a basking shark.
The liberties that Rooney’s novel took with the real (far more intricate and valuable) story of Norwood are, one presumes, faithfully transposed to the screen. And so instead of a deeply ideologically motivated 40-year spying career for the NKVD, during which the Norwood became, reportedly, the most important British asset the Russians ever had, we get a tepid few years of primly virtuous secret-peddling, motivated by Joan’s horror at the excessive loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and her belief that the USSR also in possession of bomb would’ve been the only deterrent to further mass slaughter. “And I was right, wasn’t I?” says Dench on that lawn, later on, making an inarguable point about the Cold War-era policy of mutually assured destruction that is perhaps the film’s most provocative statement, and yet left largely undeveloped.
In the vacuum where Joan’s political radicalization should appear, we get instead a treacly tale of amour fou, as the wide-eyed naif attends Cambridge University and becomes, apparently, a brilliant physicist (though her actual contributions to the wartime science effort are confined here to her saying the word “Centrifuge?” and doing a lot of typing). At Cambridge she meets worldly Russian emigré Sonya, played by Tereza Srbova as a sizzlingly decadent good-time girl so obviously duplicitous she might as well have introduced herself as Mata Hari, but who does at least give this ostensibly feminist story another female character, even if they do spend most of their time together talking about men or minks. And through Sonya, Joan attends her first political gathering, at which she is instantly smitten by staunchly communist firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes), an emotionally unavailable German Jew who, eventually and with evident reluctance on his side, becomes her lover.
This means he’s ideally placed to pressure her into passing along secrets when she gets recruited into Tube Alloys, the innocuous cover name for the British wartime research unit dedicated to developing an atomic bomb, and where Joan is above, or rather beneath suspicion, on account of being woman (the fact that the Russians value her intel when her own country underestimates her intelligence is yet another of the areas left frustratingly undernourished here). Despite the call of her loins, Joan resists Leo’s entreaties, and in the meantime inspires, through many an evening time sidelong glances, the stiff-upper-lipped devotion of her unhappily married English boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Her resistance, however, recedes when Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombs are dropped and Joan, motivated apparently by nothing more nefarious than her sense of peppy, fair-play Englishness, decides to commit high treason by sharing schematics and engineering blueprints with the Soviets via Sonya and Leo. Cue secret compartments in handbags, spy cameras and, particularly dramatically, a locket in which is hidden a curare-dipped needle should the need for sudden suicide arise. Such draconian devices somehow do not dissuade her, despite the fact that throughout it all “Red” Joan is apparently at most a washed-out shade of pink, and only dyed that color because of the company she keeps, like a white sock in with the coloreds.
It’s always dangerous to wonder about what a film might have been rather than contending with what it is, but in this case what it is, is so bland, and so stolidly workmanlike in execution that even the most dedicated viewer might find her attention sliding off DP Zac Nicholson‘s ration-book-colored images and wandering to the what-ifs. If only Nunn, with his background as a theater director, had given the whole film over to Dench, the most capable and charismatic performer in his ensemble, and let her just tell it! There is a version of this story, or even better, of Melita Norwood’s that could make a great chamber piece and simultaneously be one of those extremely rare, meaty roles for an older actress, as an octogenarian housewife rattling around her suburban terraced house and relating, over the stirring of teaspoons and the boiling of kettles, how she gave Russia the bomb. What a shame that “Red Joan” isn’t it. [C]