Jacob Richardson | 6/05/2019
A slow but intriguing examination of what it means to be a spy.
An aged Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is shocked when British police turn up at her door, claiming she is a Russian spy. They take her in for questioning, and as they question her about her past we spend time in her memory; watching a young Joan (Sophie Cookson) during college and her time as a scientist during the War. All the while, we are left wondering if this seemingly innocent old woman, and the young, intrepid woman she so vividly recalls, could possibly be a Russian spy.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, Red Joan splits its time between an old and a young Joan Stanley. It doesn’t take the viewer long to realise that the only intriguing part of the story is the younger Joan, and at that point every cutaway to the barely told legislative battles of old Joan becomes a sheer inconvenience.
That being said, the young Joan certainly has much to hold your interest. This is very much due to the strength of Sophie Cookson’s nuanced performance, coupled with capable direction and a robust script. Cookson manages to capture both the incredible intelligence and cunning of Joan, and the innocence and love-struck obliviousness. In doing so, she crafts a compelling character that you consistently root for, without ever getting frustrated by her pursuit of Leo.
To that end, Tom Hughes is fantastic as Leo; magnetic and mysterious, but also disdainful. So too are Tereza Srbova and Stephen Campbell Moore. The cast actually seems to be let down by Dench in her older incarnation of Joan. Dench plays Joan with a severe lack of self-awareness. Undoubtedly meant to make us feel like Joan is acting clueless to avoid persecution, the fact that her charade never lifts but is instead a sort of misguided view of right and wrong tends to reinforce your disinterest and flat out frustration with the character. As the film progresses, and we see what a tough, cunning and intelligent young woman Joan was, the disparity between Cookson’s and Dench’s portrayal becomes all the more real.
That’s a shame, because there is a lot to love here. It is a well acted period piece, anchored in an interesting tale. Of course it’s slow; very few movies like this aren’t. But for the discerning viewer that is never the issue. The issue is when the story feels false or put on. When that web of lies starts to unravel that is cinema starts to unravel, it becomes all you can see. Unfortunately for Red Joan, the unravelling of that web distracts from an otherwise solid true life spy story.
A serviceable enough piece of filmmaking, but you’ll be wishing the filmmakers had focused on the past instead of the present.