Red Joan

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney that was inspired by the real-life story of the British civil servant and Soviet spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is a disappointing film that somehow makes the deeply fascinating material rather boring and bland, with the only bright spot being Judi Dench’s performance, albeit with very little screen time. The story starts in modern-day England when a elderly grandmother named Joan Stanley, played by Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, is arrested on suspicion of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union following World War II. However, most of the film takes place in flashbacks that portray the young and idealistic Cambridge physics student Joan Stanley, played by the beautiful young British actress Sophie Cookson, falling in love with a Soviet sympathizer named Leo, played by Tom Hughes best known for his work on the British TV series Victoria. After graduating, she works for a secret British nuclear weapon program run by the brilliant scientist Professor Max Davis, played by British actor Stephen Campbell Moore, and is eventually recruited by the Soviet KGB through her connections with Leo to become a spy passing highly classified information about the British nuclear program. At times, it is a fairly typical romantic drama in which Joan falls in love with the mysterious and ultimately dangerous Leo while also developing feelings for her boss Professor Davis. The rest of the film explores the intriguing case of Joan becoming a Soviet spy and her struggle between her allegiance to her native Britain and her disdain for her government’s developing nuclear weapons, particularly after learning the horrific details of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To the movie’s detriment, the filmmaker relies on telling the story in a unusually slow and stale pace and does not use the talents of Judi Dench very much as a result of his emphasis on the character’s younger life. Overall, I was hoping for a prestige British historical drama that would better encapsulate one of the more interesting stories in espionage history, but, unfortunately, the execution is extremely lacking for such a terrific filmpremise.

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