Directed by Trevor Nunn
Written by Lindsay Shapero based on the novel by Jennie Rooney
Starring Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova, Judi Dench
As I watched Trevor Nunn’s (Lady Jane) “Red Joan” unfold, I was uniquely aware of my childhood. I grew up during the Cold War, but not once did I really think about how that affected my childhood. I was completely engrossed in science fiction, though I suppose now that I think about that, the ‘Star Wars’ race really was a reflection of what had come before me.
It is important to understand how the era you grew up in, influences how you react to modern events. I’d often hear my grandparents say “kids these days.” I’m not necessarily thinking about that, but I am thinking about Joan Stanley, played by Judi Dench. The story, written by Lindsay Shapero based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, transitions between modern times where the elderly Joan Stanley is arrested on charges of treason.
As the story opens, Shapero’s story flashes back to Joan’s younger days at Cambridge. The younger Joan, played by Sophie Cookson, is a bit of a milquetoast character in that she is an ideologue. Her passion was physics, but so much of the early part of the film focuses on how the male-dominated world perceived her.
She eventually comes to the attention of Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes). The “recruitment” is subtle in terms of the story, but the films and the allegiance song suggests that her journey was anything but subtle.
As with many of the best spy movies, “Red Joan” works overtime to make sure that the protagonist’s ideologies are cemented in our consciousness, a critical component of the modern times as the interrogation serves to try to break that.
In the past, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), is the lead scientist working to build the atomic bomb. His character adds a lot of interesting insight in to how the British were stuck between the ‘yanks’ and the Russians with the technology and he confided in Joan. Leo (Tom Hughes) was trying to court her and coerce her in to giving information over to the Russians.
The subtleties are still present as the story tries to build a romance, but ultimately the story isn’t interested in that context as it progresses forward in time: the more we learn about Joan’s history, her loss of innocence and the complexities of treason, the less interested we become in her character’s journey.
It’s a shame too because there’s so much detail about how diplomacy, and the struggle for peace that gets lost in the background. The character of Joan is believable, but it’s the constant use of time shifting to tell the story and give us a perspective that gets lost.
Nick (Ben Miles) plays Joan’s son. Continuing in the family lineage, he is a powerful individual in the government, his character a counter for Max. That balance in the character restores some of the motive behind Joan’s path. However, by the time we get there, her story is so convoluted that we aren’t really interested in the why’s, only the how’s.
Ms. Dench’s performance is fine for this type of story as was Ms. Cookson’s, something that salvaged the film for me. The story really got bogged down in transitioning constantly that the details became irrelevant.
As those details sunk in it reminded me of just how unique the passage of time becomes, our sense of that time and our place within that time. We try to defend our actions of the past in a time where life moves so fast that the modern, older versions of ourselves struggle to prove that what we’ve done was honorable to a younger generation that has become intolerant.
“Red Joan” had the power to connect generations, but it gets stuck in its own ideology and never really lets that ideology sing.
1.5 out of 4 stars