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Posts Tagged ‘Red Joan’

Normally the Easter weekend, long and relaxed as it is, is an opportunity for a major studio to put out one of their big blockbusters and hoover up a lot of the audience’s money. Last year it was Ready Player One, the year before that it was Fast and Furious 8. But this year? Nothing of that ilk, really: the odd promising genre movie, perhaps, but the looming juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame has everyone running scared: nobody wants their film to have an effective window of only about six days before the majority of audiences are lured elsewhere. As I often observe, this does provide possibilities for inventive counter-programming, which may be why the highest profile release in the UK at the moment is probably Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan.

As I say, this film arguably qualifies as counter-programming, as it has all the hallmarks of being primarily aimed at, shall we say, an audience of a somewhat more seasoned vintage. Your older cinemagoer, as a rule, is not that fussed about the doings of Captain America or Thanos, but they do like gently-paced films hearkening back to the days of yore, with reassuringly solid British production values when it comes to things like sets and costumes, good looking young people, and ideally a Genuine British National Treasure they are comfortably familiar with. No-one meets a violent on-camera death, if there are any amatory goings-on they are handled tastefully, for the most part, and everything wraps up in more or less the manner you would expect. I tend to refer to this subgenre of the British costume drama as hats-and-fags movies, as the setting of the mid-20th century is betokened by virtually no-one going bareheaded and always having a cigarette or two on the go.

Despite all of that, Red Joan opens in the present day – or something roughly akin to it, assuming we can agree that things haven’t changed too much since 2000, which is when the frame story of this movie opens. Harmless old granny Joan (Judi Dench) is getting on with her innocuous life, occasionally sighing over an old friend’s obituary in the papers, when Special Branch come round and arrest her. Judi Dench under arrest? Outrageous! What can this all be about?

Well, Dench is slapped into an interrogation suite and told she has been implicated in an espionage case in which atom bomb secrets were given to the KGB. The police demand that she tell them everything, which is probably a regrettable choice of words: without going into too much detail, Joan doesn’t start leaking to the Russkies until 1945, but the flashbacks comprising most of the film commence a good seven years before that. I suppose this is an acceptable convention allowing some context to be established for everything going on. Basically, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) arrives in Cambridge to study science, falls into the orbit of a pair of glamorous mittel-European refugees (Tom Hughes and Tereza Skrbova), goes to screenings of Battleship Potemkin, and is generally swayed to the ways of socialism. One of the Europeans becomes her best friend, the other becomes her first real boyfriend and tastefully defoliates her just before scooting off to Russia to join the Comintern.

Then the Second World War starts and Joan is recruited into the British end of the project to develop a working atom bomb. As this is still the 1940s, she is only allowed to be quietly brilliant, and has to spend most of her time typing, filing, and making the tea, but her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) is still much taken with her. Her old friends are well aware of her role in the project, of course, and soon begin to press her to help them: the western Allies are not sharing their research on the new weapon with the USSR, which is surely horribly unfair. For the good of everyone, is it not her duty to help maintain equality by giving the Russians the secret of the Bomb?

When you have a film which centres on the protagonist – a generally sympathetic character – doing something apparently unconscionable like betraying Blighty to Stalin, the thing you really have to do – your number one priority, no exceptions – is to take the viewer on a journey to the point where they understand just why the character behaves the way that they do. Red Joan is a movie which is not short on flaws, but one of the main ones is that it’s never really clear exactly what motivates Joan to make the key choices that she does. Is it a desire to preserve the balance of power? Is it out of a deep-seated attachment to justice? Is she so engaged with the cause of socialism, or is it just that she has a bit of a pash for the fellow who asks her? Is she even sure herself? Obfuscation reigns.

This may well be because, having been handed a lot of little-known and potentially fascinating material – the race to develop the atomic bomb, the Cambridge spy rings, the whole issue of links between left-leaning British intellectuals and Stalinist Russia – the film instead decides to concentrate primarily on Joan’s love life. There is the mysterious and enigmatic young foreigner, who is passionately drawn to her! There is her unhappily-married boss, who is also passionately drawn to her! It’s remarkable how alluring a young woman in a selection of berets and sensible knitwear can be (although, to be fair to her, Cookson is more than averagely pretty).

The decision to go with the romantic tosh would be less objectionable if it was better written romantic tosh – but the script for Red Joan is turgid and poorly constructed, with too much to-ing and fro-ing between heated moments in the 1940s and Judi Dench sitting with her head in her hands in the sequences set in 2000. Obviously the film wants Dench on screen as much as possible, but she really doesn’t get material that’s worthy of her – lots of general purpose being-distraught and some painfully hackneyed stuff with her son, who spends much of the film complaining that she never told him she was a KGB spy.

The film even cops out of a proper sense of closure, ending instead with a set of captions revealing the film is based (seemingly rather loosely) on the story of Melita Norwood, a communist sympathiser who was a highly-valued KGB asset for 35 years, yet never prosecuted by the authorities on account of her advanced age when she was exposed. Presumably the decision was made to make a work of fiction rather than a biographical drama about Norwood herself, on the grounds it wouldn’t be shackled by the facts of the case and could be more exciting and engaging. Which is fine in theory, but this film squanders the potential of its real-world source material and also the potential of the fact it is primarily fictitious. The moral decisions at the centre of the story are never really brought to life, and the human relationships never convince either. The result is a film which is pleasant to look at but inescapably dull.

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