Well-paced and well-acted, “Red Joan” causes time to fly and a tale of global patriotism to shine. A spy for love and peace, Judi Dench and Sophie Cooksen bring the real Melita Norwood to light. Based on the Jennifer Rooney novel ” Red Joan”, this film by the same name, tells the true story of a Cambridge physics whiz of the 1930’s who spied for the Russians for all the right reasons: love and peace.
A period piece with lovely music by George Fenton keeps us intrigued through two lovers, a suspicious death, a blackmail of a friend and fellow spy, a marriage, and a MI5 arrest of a elderly woman, some fifty years after her crime. Throw in the formation of the Atomic bomb and the politics of the time and a chain reaction is ready to explode on the screen. The fact that it doesn’t is part of the story. No country is torpedoed after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The premise is with Russia and the U.S. both having the bomb, the balance of power will keep us all safer.
No real spy gadgets are utilized except for a series of saintly medals like St. Albert and Saint Christopher that have the ability to undetectibly kill when a pin is pricked in one’s forearm’s fold. A santitary towel, or feminine hygiene product, hides a hidden camera to be easily tossed into a canal before MI5 agents discover it.
The past and the present is interwoven in Lindsay Sharpero’s screenplay. Sophie Cookson is the young Joan, idealistic, and primed to be deflowered and politicized by her first lover, Leo ( Tom Hughes), who calls her ” my little comrade” and “Jojo” in turns. And there are many turns. Their secret haunts and embankment picnics may still rebuild the world in a whole new way.
When Joan discovers Leo’s relationship with her friend, Sonya ( Czech actress Teresa Srbova ), heartache ensues, but a Communist sympathizer she remains. Joan’s second lover becomes her boss on the atomic bomb project and ultimately her forgiving husband, Prof. Max Davis ( Stephen Campbell Moore). A member of their Cambridge group, now in a high British office, is personally blackmailed by Joan. Personal relationships and spy life don’t mix well, but this allows for a normal life in Australia, or ultimately in Bexleyheath, South East London.
In a sentimental turn, Joan’s barrister son Nick, played by Ben Miles, represents her in front of the media as she is dubbed “The Granny Spy”. She was not prosecuted due to her age. Her fictional son ( she had only one daughter) never learned of his father’s arrest for his Russian sympathies in lieu of his mother.Joan believed she was fighting for all humanity, and Max believed and loved her. She tells Max that she was fighting for the living.”I love my country.” She could have added,”I love our world”. When Nick asks his mother how much his dad knew, she simply says, “Enough”.
Director Trevor Nunn begins with Judi Dench pruning her English garden. She has pruned her conscience in the same way. Signing a contract to absolute secrecy was erased for a higher good. A KGB recruit she may be, but the Russians were our allies and scientific research needs to be shared. The balance of power is at stake. This film balances heart and intellect but in 1930 style. Those looking for “The Enemy Within” will be annoyed at the lack of physical action. I liked this film more than most reviewers.