Red Joan stars Judi Dench as its titular former Soviet spy, in a film inspired by the case of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who was revealed to have provided nuclear secrets to the Soviets, unmasked when she was well into her eighties. Dame Judi’s scenes as the elderly Joan bookend flashbacks starring Sophie Cookson as Young Joan, as she gets drawn into socialist circles at Cambridge in the 1930s.
Young Joan’s world of romance, wartime organizing, and intrigue is a lot more interesting than Old Joan’s world of disapproving officials and interrogation rooms, though Old Joan is a more intriguing psychological conundrum. It’s an interesting case and a fascinating setting, but when Red Joan blurs and composites real-life spy cases, it seems less a way to explore some aspect of the human condition than a shortcut for narrative expediency. It’s entertaining enough, but it never quite answers the question why tell this story, and why fictionalize it?
Young Joan is a natural sciences major at Cambridge — blurring Norwood’s story (she was a Latin and Logic major at Southampton before dropping out) with that of the Cambridge Five, while adding in the girls-pursuing-STEM-professions character trend, as seen in Dumbo and others. Young Joan (distractingly played by an actress with different colored eyes than Judi Dench) first meets fast party girl Sophie (Tereza Srbova), who in turn introduces her to her cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), an active campus socialist organizer, along with their acolyte, a gay viscount with an Indian lover.
The film does a decent job contrasting skeptical Socialist humanist Joan with her true believing, Stalin apologist friends (tankies, in modern parlance) Sophie and Leo, the latter a perfect fuckboi in the Timotheé Chalamet-in-Lady Bird mode. The trouble is, Joan’s ideology is all mixed up with her love life.
The ideology of its protagonist is Red Joan’s biggest question, as illustrated by Old Joan’s interrogators demanding to know when she was “radicalized.” We don’t get an entirely satisfying depiction of Joan’s motives for initially resisting and eventually relenting to pass nuclear secrets to the USSR. She eventually says she did it because she wanted to level the playing field, to give the Soviets the bomb in the hopes that two powers having the bomb would mean neither would actually use it. It’s a novel explanation, but also one that feels like retroactive justification.
Red Joan — written by Lisa Shapero and directed by Trevor Nunn — does its best to differentiate Joan’s spying decisions from who she’s screwing. First Leo the hotheaded Communist, and later Max, her married supervisor at the ministry of tube alloys, the apolitical scientist, also naive in his way, but who respects Joan for her sciencing and doesn’t treat her like an inferior woman (though he does fall in love with her). Shapero and Nunn are clearly too smart to depict Joan as an irrational woman whose politics are driven by fickle emotions (and know they’d be pilloried in reviews for it), but they’re clearly far more interested in Joan’s affairs than in her politics.
And frankly, Joan’s politics warranted more exploration than Red Joan allows. When Old Joan casually serves tea in a Che Guevara mug (a factual nugget taken from the Melita Norwood story), it doesn’t feel earned. It’s also much more confusing in the movie’s fictionalized context, with Joan’s grown son (Ben Miles) acting blindsided that she was ever a Socialist and screaming that she betrayed her country. Bro, did you not notice the Che mug?
That intriguing image, of an elderly pensioner serving tea in a Che mug, seems like catnip for screenwriters, and was probably a big part of the reason someone wanted to tell this story in the first place. How did she get here? What was going on in that lady’s head? I’m not sure Red Joan quite gets us closer to an answer.