Have you ever heard of Melita Norwood? Born in 1912, she worked as a KGB spy on British soil for about 40 years. Remarkable, but not in any way comparable to any curious anecdote one can find daily on the front page of Reddit. However, what if her sympathies became known only in 1999, some 30 years after her retirement, and that it was also publicly revealed that among her highly valued contributions (to the URSS, of course; the opinion of the British government would arguably not be as kind), this 87-years-old woman managed to secure documents which allowed the URSS to replicate the British atomic bomb? Well, be careful not to step on your jaw there.
Red Joan was born from these true events. Joan Stanley is as lovely an elderly woman as Judi Dench has ever played, enjoying retirement in a pretty little house chock-full of doilies and other adorable granny paraphernalia. However, the quiet of her picturesque town is shattered when MI5 shows up on her doorstep and takes her in for questioning. The charge: years of activity as an agent of the KGB. The film cuts back and forth between the present and the 1930s, where Joan is first a timid Cambridge student and then a capable mathematician employed by the British government.
Neither the frail old lady nor the demure young woman (played by Sophie Cookson) seem like they’d be capable of committing treason, and one cannot help believing that Joan was framed, that she was a victim of circumstances, and then that her participation was coerced… until the truth comes out. For a revelation that sets the premise of the entire film, it comes a little too late into the story, and is likely to leave someone who read the synopsis or watched the trailer quite exasperated for the pace to pick up.
Sadly, however, this is far from the only criticism that can be leveled against Red Joan. In fact, the film never manages to be remotely as intriguing as a one-line summary of its premise. The script is clunky, ill-paced and dispersive, with an ensemble of dramatically uninteresting characters, whose personality ranges from none at all to flat, a destiny which only on exceedingly rare occasions spares the protagonist herself as she somewhat inconsistently moves from the former end of the spectrum to the latter. Befuddled as she might rightfully be, for the first third of the film she feels far too passive to be noticeable, and then barely in control of her actions, which clashes with the intent of portraying her as a hero faced with a moral dilemma of titanic scope. On the contrary, the choice she has to face – the betrayal of a country she loves for the sake of peace – feels more like an afterthought than the crux of her character.
Red Joan also feels as though it thinks it has something to say about female empowerment. Young Joan is indeed a bright woman who moves in male-dominated environments, but her battle against chauvinism is fought only with a few lines dropped here and there. Most detrimental, however, is that she falls desperately in love with the two authority figures in her life: on the workplace it is her boss (although admittedly she does do what she believes to be right even if it damages him), while in her college years it was Leo (Tom Hughes), a sexy communist haircut who, aside from a plot device and a ham-fisted way to show Joan’s (debatable) growth as a character, fills every scene with the passionate intensity of a maligned soap opera, although most of the blame should probably go to the script. Leo’s worst sin is inflicting on Joan the pet name “my little comrade” for Joan, which will be repeated ad nauseam and sound approximately twenty times more insufferable than it reads.
In the end, Red Joan, despite its exciting premise and the wonderfully agonizing question it claims to pose, winds up being boring and utterly unstimulating. There is not a single character capable of arousing sympathy or any semblance of interest, and thus none that can bear the weight of the story. Failing as an espionage film, a judiciary drama or a romance, what is left is a charmless historical drama which never quite rises to the heights it seemed to promise.