This musty Cold War thriller begins with Judi Dench’s octogenarian Joan Stanley dragged in for questioning over long-ago espionage charges. She doesn’t seem the sort to betray her country and despite the Che Guevara mug in her kitchen, hardly seems like a diehard ideologue. Did this granny really go full Kim Philby and spill Britain’s secrets to the Russians? Has ‘M’ finally gone rogue?
Based on the true story of Wolverhampton’s Melita Norwood, ‘Red Joan’ tries to keep us guessing. Shifting between the elderly Stanley and her 1930s self (Sophie Cookson), it shows her falling in with young radicals at Cambridge, becoming a physicist and having moral dilemmas over the Allies’ creation of the A-bomb. But writer-director Trevor Nunn is hamstrung by a structural flaw: whatever the truth in the charges, we know the younger Stanley wasn’t caught. Consequently, it’s all about as tense as a gentle punt down the Cam.
Instead, the film tries to get into Joan’s head as she navigates tea rooms, labs and political rallies, struggling with her conscience. There are love affairs – with Tom Hughes’s Russian firebrand and Stephen Campbell Moore’s earnest scientist – but it’s standard period fare, with a few observations on sexism sprinkled in as Joan toils to prove herself in a man’s world.
Dench does bring edge to her scenes. Few actors can shift from withering to wounded like that in one flicker of the eyes. As she shrinks under the grilling, you’ll find yourself forgetting she once gave 007 the same treatment.