Red Joan

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Red Joan
"The film succeeds in creating an objective understanding of how fashion changes and an act of generosity becomes treasonable a few generations down the line." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Was it Ian Fleming or John le Carre who made spies sexy? Doesn’t matter because they’re not. Le Carre’s real name is Cornwell (David). He was a master at Eton College before being recruited by MI5. Fleming was a pupil at the same school, which explains James Bond’s arrogance and attitude toward women (maybe).

Red Joan is a whatever-happened-to-her true story dating back to the days of amateur detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey. Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is a quiet polite old lady who is arrested early one morning and driven away in a police car. The shock and excitement is muted. Joan a criminal? The locals don’t have time to respond. It’s too ridiculous although someone asks, how did the Ruskies get The Bomb? No one has a clue.

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The real story is young Joan’s. She’s in her late teens/early twenties, played with style and authenticity by Sophie Cookson. A woman of interest, even then, she works as a civil servant and has friends amongst the underground intellectuals, many of whom are foreign, the most attractive and mysterious being the Russians. Joan’s political leanings are dogma free, on the side of the underclass, not that she mixes with them especially. She wants everyone to have a fair crack of what Old Etonians and Young Tories like to call “the whip” and since she has access to the science of how to build a nuclear device why not share it amongst friends?

The film succeeds in creating an objective understanding of how fashion changes and an act of generosity becomes treasonable a few generations down the line. To accuse the older Joan of crimes against the nation is like accusing a chicken for using its wings to escape the pen. Common sense for the common good feels better.

Dench is sadly underused. Cookson cuts through the confusion of Joan’s convoluted love life with an easy charm. If straight lines become crooked, that’s time. Nothing remains the same. That’s a cliche. The film catches a moment. It may be slow but it is also strong.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2019
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The story of Joan Stanley, who was exposed as the KGB's longest-serving British spy.
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Jennie Kermode **1/2

Director: Trevor Nunn

Writer: Lindsay Shapero

Starring: Judi Dench, Alfie Allen, Kim Allen, Stephen Boxer

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK

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