The strange thing about life, real life lived by actual people, is that it tends to unfold in a way totally unsuited to scripted drama. The “based on real events” opening gambit tends to be, at best, dismissed as bollocks or, at worst, a sort of pre-emptive final nail in the coffin: “Oh, this will be completely tedious”. Red Joan, by Trevor Nunn who last made a movie in 1986, is simultaneously both and neither. It is genuinely based on real events but comes across as so stultifying that it may as well have been made up and feels so fake and forced that it must have been true.
It is the story of Melita Norwood, a Civil Servant who spent the fat end of forty years passing secrets to the KGB, most notably regarding Britain’s development of nuclear weapons during and after the Second World War. The movie renames her Joan and has her played by both Judi Dench, in contemporary interrogation scenes, and by Sophie Cookson in flashback.
Joan, having communist sympathies, ingratiates herself with the hard left advocates at university. Joining the Civil Service and being almost nothing short of a scientific prodigy, she gets a job in the British wartime atomic weapons programme, initially just as a secretary due to her literal lack of balls. Astute and smarter than most of the men, she proves valuable, but is repeatedly dismissed in the sexist environment. At the same time, she continues to fraternise with an old school flame Leo (Tom Hughes) a German émigré spying for the Soviets.
In the present day, and under arrest, the older Joan played by Dench recounts her story and sheds some light on her motivation – which seems to be mostly a genuine belief in the communist cause but bound up with a frustration of the patriarchal nonsense she had to endure. Dench’s contribution to this is so slight and dreary that you wonder why on earth the filmmakers bothered to use her and, indeed, why she felt compelled to do it. The flashback scenes unfold with the glossy, treacly air of spangly ephemera that you get from roasting a whole tin of Quality Street in a brazier. Cookson ploughs her way through it with some gusto and there is a crumb of interest in the skewering of the 1940’s male-domination; but mostly it’s plodding and leaden and tedious. Tom Hughes raises an unintentional smile here and there with his accidental Prince Ludwig the Indestructible impression.
Chris Banks | [rating=1]
Drama | UK, 2018 | 15 | Lionsgate Films UK | 19th April 2019 | Dir.Trevor Nunn | Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Judi Dench, Tereza Srbova