Red Joan is a spy drama adapted from the novel of the same name Jennie Rooney. These are based on the real life Melita Norwood, a British woman who supplied the KGB with state secrets and was uncovered as a russian spy in her late 80s.
It seems as though Red Joan is only very loosely inspired by the idea of an elderly woman being uncovered as a spy working on Britain’s attempts to create a nuclear bomb. Rather than making Joan a full KGB agent screenwriter Lindsay Shapero and director Trevor Nunn choose to make her a more conflicted figure. Rather than doing this for politically motivated reasons, rather she is doing it from moral objections to the use of atomic weapons, and is just trying to create a Cold War style scenario where countries are afraid to use their weapons.
If there is one reason to see Red Joan it is certainly the performance of Sophie Cookson as the young Joan. The film tells her story by featuring an older Joan, played by Judi Dench, being interrogated and flashing back to the events of the past. Dench is great, but her scenes are so limited and mostly to reaction shots, that it feels like they were mainly included to reference the idea of a spying granny. Cookson though shines in her scenes as a young woman in two male dominated worlds who is determined to to stand up for what she believes in. Cookson’s charm and charisma make Joan a protagonist you want to root for.
It is just a shame that she isn’t given better material to work with. In the end Red Joan winds up as a rather unengaging and dull affair. Despite what could be a great premise, and genuinely spark some interesting political or moral ideas. Instead the film seems far more interested with Joan’s relationships with Russian communist Leo and her boss at Tube Alloys (the nuclear weapon development project) Max. In the end the film rather goes through the same motions several times as Joan gets close to Leo, becomes frustrated with him and pulls away toward Max. It’s uninspiring stuff, which is a great disappointment given the premise and the lead performances.