Is there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!
Red Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.
We’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.
Two additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)
The film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?
Coming it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!