Red Joan


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Red Joan
"Those parts of the plot concerned with the politics and practice of espionage are frequently overshadowed by the romance themes, the result being more Mills & Boon than John le Carré." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Ask espionage experts and they'll tell you that the best spies are old women. Why? Because by and large, nobody pays much attention to them, and they certainly don't expect them to be engaged in anything that exciting. The title character in this film, based on a real woman, wasn't old when she was involved in espionage but is when she's arrested, which shocks everyone who knows her. How could she possibly be guilty? In the popular imagination, female spies look like Mata Hari, not like somebody's dear old nan.

The older Joan, played by Judi Dench, is caught between her resentment of this sexism and her efforts, at least initially, to conceal the truth. Of course, we know she's guilty - otherwise there'd be no story - but the reasons for her choices may be different from those generally assumed. The film sets out to explore those reasons in a series of lengthy flashbacks which begin with the young Joan (Sophie Cookson) attending university in the Forties and making a new friend who takes her along to a meeting of the Communist Party. There she immediately catches the eye of a young man who will become her lover, and she also begins to explore political ideas not as a convert but as a pluralist, undermining her belief that she should stand by what she's told are her country's interests, right or wrong.

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There's a lot of mileage in this latter theme. Though the film sometimes feels like it's proselytising, the waters are muddied by the younger Joan's naivety and by the multiple factors tugging at her loyalty as she progresses from physics student to assistant to a senior scientist working on the development of the atomic bomb. Of course, far less of what happens to her is coincidental than she realises, her natural talents marking her out as a person of interest to more than one group. Her progress is also limited by the sexism of the time and she continually encounters men who doubt her skill. It is, perhaps, difficult to remain loyal to organisations that label one as an outsider in this way.

Unfortunately, for all that the film challenges sexism in these ways, it falls prey to it in others. Those parts of the plot concerned with the politics and practice of espionage are frequently overshadowed by the romance themes, the result being more Mills & Boon than John le Carré. Every ten minutes Joan is swooning into somebody's arms and her insistence that it means nothing to her doesn't carry much weight, resting as it does on a long tradition of film heroines getting feisty with the men they'll end up sacrificing everything for. This heavy signalling that she thinks differently because she's a girl spy means she might as well have a bow on her head. Cookson makes her character so emotional in these moments that it's difficult to take her seriously when she insists she wasn't unduly influenced - and if all we're watching is a puppet serving somebody else's agenda, that makes for a pretty bland film.

Red Joan is interesting where it takes on historical issues and explores the culture change between then and now, quietly revealing the ways in which some aspects of political thinking have become more, not less, restricted in the decades since the Second World War. Dench is solid as always, there are a couple of good supporting performances and those who really go in for bodice-rippers and tragic romance will probably enjoy themselves. Ultimately, though, there's a lot less substance here than the premise suggests and fans of spy films, in particular, are likely to leave disappointed.

Reviewed on: 16 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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Read more Red Joan reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***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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