Film Review: Red Joan sadly fails to ignite its potential

For a movie based on a true story about an elderly British woman revealed to be a long-term spy for the Russians, one headlined by the ever-reliable Judi Dench, Red Joan sadly fails to ignite its potential.

Based on a novel inspired by Melita Norwood (dubbed “The Granny Spy”), who was both a British civil servant and a KGB intelligence source from, the 1930’s-1970’s, Red Joan has all the makings of a cracking thriller at its disposal. Sadly, the Lindsay Shapero-penned script is unable to utilise what was surely a complex and harrowing tale, transforming the titular Joan (played by both Dench and Sophie Cookson in flashback sequences) into little more than a reckless student who appeared to commit these acts of treason under a love-struck gaze.

Despite Dench’s prominence in the promotional material, Red Joan is more reliant on Cookson, and whilst the young actress is a reliable talent, she’s no Dench, and the two never feel like a cohesive unit; whenever Dench flutters her eyes and stares longingly into the distance as to indicate another flashback, the scenes involving Cookson feel as if we’re watching another character’s story.

The flashbacks, for those interested in what’s taking place, are set in Cambridge in the late 1930’s where the shy, reserved Joan finds herself equally seduced by the sophisticated Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and the dashing Leo (Tom Hughes), a communist organiser and German Jew who will ultimately lead Joan on her path of deception.  He stares her down with bedroom eyes, she swoons back, and so begins a tepid love affair in between Joan acquiring top secret information from the British government regarding the building of an atomic bomb.

The casting of Dench essentially builds in a layer of trust for the audience so that we can’t help but sympathise with Joan, even though she did indeed betray her country, and that would be well and good if the story was presented in a manner that was remotely exciting.  Perhaps sensing that older audiences averse to profanity, violence, and sexual material (though the film does briefly offer up a tame love scene) would be Red Joan‘s prime ticket buyers, director Trevor Nunn has opted for the early-bird special filter here, presenting a story that should be thrilling and investing as one that’s too tepid and safe to successfully connect with the masses.


Red Joan is screening in Australian theatres from June 6th 2019.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.