Red Joan: Giving away state secrets

B Espionage drama
Written by Lindsay Shapero, from the novel by Jennie Rooney
Directed by Trevor Nunn

If you go to this British espionage drama hoping to see Judi Dench in a starring role, Red Joan will disappoint you. Yes, Dench gets top billing, and she does play the main character, but only in a few scenes that frame the story. Most of the film is flashbacks, and here the much younger and less-well-known Sophie Cookson truly carries the film as an earlier version of the title character.

Red Joan is one of those well-made British movies filled with excellent acting and a visual style that cries out “This is a well-made period piece.” It’s a good film, but not good enough to stand out against most of Masterpiece Theater.

You may have noticed that I described Red Joan as an “espionage drama,” rather than an “espionage thriller.” It has a few moments of suspense, but not many. Nor does it need them. The film turns on moral conflicts – patriotism vs. world peace, Capitalism vs. Communism, and love vs. loyalty – not physical danger.

The movie starts when the government arrests the old Joan (Dench) for treason. This is a big surprise, especially for her son, a very successful barrister (Ben Miles, who you might recognize from the BBC sitcom Coupling). As he learns about his mother’s crimes, he discovers one horrible truth after another. Essentially, his mother has been lying to him all his life.

The young Joan’s journey is the heart of Red Joan. She gets a secretarial job at a top-secret government physics labs, and she’s the absolute perfect “girl” for the job. It’s World War II, and England must make the atom bomb before Germany. Beating the Americans would be nice, too, but keeping this weapon away from Stalin is almost as important as keeping it from Hitler.

She proves her capabilities far beyond what was assumed for a woman in the 1940s. Her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) recognizes her capabilities, and there’s a hint of romance in their working relationship.

Then a tall, handsome, young Communist (Tom Hughes) comes into her life. They’re soon lovers, but he constantly tries to get secrets from her. He’s not the only “friend” of hers working for Russia. But when she does decide to sneak top-secret information to Moscow, after the war, she has her own, unique reasons.

Red Joan is based – very, very lightly – on a true story. Unlike the fictitious Joan, Melita Norwood was, in fact, a Communist. And she wasn’t a physicist.

The fictitious Joan gave Russia the bomb because she wanted a balance of power. She felt that if all the major countries had it, no one would ever start another massive world war like the two recent ones. And, in fact, there hasn’t been such a massive world war since.

Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay brings up troubling moral issues. It provides several talented British actors to prove their worth. It’s also kind of fun, after all those James Bond movies, to see Judi Dench get arrested by MI5.

Red Joan opens Friday at the Clay, Aquarius, Guild, Albany Twin, and Piedmont.