In 2000, Joan Stanley's (Judi Dench) suburban life is turned upside down when arrested by MI5 and accused of treason. Events from 1938 are brought to light when the young Joan (Sophie Cookson) was a physics student at Cambridge. She fell in love with a young communist Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) and subsequently worked at a top-secret nuclear research facility during WWII with Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Review by Louise Keller: Ideals, secrets, love and betrayal are the themes of this superb British spy thriller in which a physics graduate risks everything 'to change the world'. Adapted from Jennie Rooney's best-selling book and based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, Trevor Nunn (former Royal Shakespeare Company director) has crafted a gripping drama combining personal and philosophical elements. Judi Dench as Joan Stanley and Sophie Cookson as her younger self are both formidable; the narrative flitting back and forth from the year 2000 to that of 1938, when classified documents start to be passed to the Russians. Passion is the driver, but it is ideals and not pillow talk that trigger the action. Involving from the get-go, Red Joan is compelling cinema, as a deep conviction to create a better world is complicated by matters of the heart.
From the outset, Lindsay Shapiro's screenplay creates the reality of Dench's elderly pensioner Joan Stanley as she prunes her garden at her suburban London home. The arrival of MI5 and the accusation of treason against her country is shocking, as is the fact that Joan's barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) is oblivious to his mother's past. The increasingly prickly relationship between mother and son is a key dramatic element.
The 1938 backstory is quickly established when Joan (Cookson: think Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca) meets Leo (Tom Hughes, perfectly cast), the charismatic and dashing Russian communist. He endearingly calls her 'My little Comrade'; his dream is to 'rebuild a civilization from scratch'. The development of their relationship is charming. I like the scene by the river at Cambridge, when they converse about Dickens, communism, physics and tadpoles. Meanwhile, in the interrogation room, Dench's Joan recalls 'the age of wisdom and foolishness.'
By the time Joan is recommended as P.A to the enigmatic Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) in his work about separating isotopes, splitting atoms and creating a super bomb, the narrative has fallen into a rhythmic crescendo as the past and the present see-saw into a tense enigma. Everything is 'hidden in plain sight' but there are complications in falling in love with a married man. Tight close ups are effective as the intimacy between Joan and Max blossoms. Listen to George Fenton's beautiful fluid score that plays at counterpoint to the exposition.
Actions and consequences; the stakes get higher. There are questions to be answered and the decision to reveal them on a need to know basis, is perfect. An extraordinary story with fascinating elements, Red Joan is an intelligent film that stimulates and entertains. If you love films like Enigma and Charlotte Gray, don't miss this one.
Review by Andrew L. Urban: Inspired by a true story, they say, and inspired is the right word to describe the screenplay, a clear, intelligent, unsentimental unpacking of a fascinating and complex real life drama. Character and the accident of history fuse into a complicated time-bomb. The most compelling aspect and the most satisfying for the audience, is the dislocation between what Joan (Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench) did and why she did it. You have to discover that towards the end.
Structurally, I was reminded of Milos Forman's fabulous film, Amadeus (1984), which begins with Mozart's rival composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) confessing his sins to a priest, taking us through the story in flashback. (That's after Salieri's dramatic suicide attempt to the music of Mozart's powerful Symphony No 25 in G minor...great movie.)
Where the real depth of the film becomes apparent is in the same way as in Amadeus, the depth of characterisations, the details of each protagonist and their motives, emotional attachments and the long tail of those elements. The very Englishness of the people, the ordinariness of the surroundings and the juxtaposition of these with the horrors of the war make for rich emotive textures. These are beautifully captured by George Fenton's score.
Red Joan is a film for grown ups with an appreciation of cinema and an openness to explore human nature in all sorts of compromising circumstances.