Red Joan Review - Absorbing, A Captivating True Story of International Intrigue

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Red Joan, from Lionsgate and IFC Films, presents the true story of Joan Stanley, a British citizen arrested for violations of the Secrets Acts, exposed as a KGB agent who passed secrets during World War II.

Directed by Trevor Nunn, Red Joan stars Dame Judi Dench, Ben Miles, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tereza Srbova, Tom Hughes, Freddie Gaminara, Kevin Fuller, Nina Sosanya, Lawrence Spellman. Red Joan was written by Lindsay Shapiro based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney and inspired by Melita Norwood.

Red Joan begins with Joan Stanley, played by Dame Judi Dench, trimming the roses in her front yard. As she retreats to her home, the camera pans over pictures of a family, what appears to be the home of an elderly, widowed, woman. A throw on the ottoman for an afternoon nap, the newspaper laid out on the dining room table.


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After she prepares a cup of tea she sits and begins to read the obituary of the Head of the Foreign Office, William Mitchell, played by Freddie Gaminara.

Just then a pounding on the front door. Opening we hear with the same astonishment as Joan, by Detectives played by Nina Sosanya and Lawrence Spellman, who after confirming her identity explain she is been indicted on violations of the secrets act.

Taken into custody, the interrogations start which is when the film transitions. As the modern fades Cambridge University, 1939 appears and we meet young Joan, played by Sophie Cookson, hurrying off to classes. 

Later that evening as she is winding down for the night, a knock on her window, a fellow student, Sonya, played by Tereza Srbova, explains her room is on the third floor, if she gets caught out past curfew it would be the end of her.


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The next day Sonya and Joan see each other across the campus. Again, a nonchalant wave among coeds at a University where the exchange of ideas, beliefs and dreams of changing the world are welcomed, debated and encouraged. Soon they are attending meetings designed, in retrospect, to politicize and introduce them to others who have the same sympathies.

For young Joan, we meet Sonya’s cousin, Leo, played by Tom Hughes, William Mitchell, who is studying foreign affairs all gathering, weekly, which seems like what friends do. The first move of what would seem like drawing Joan into the web, of course, was Leo, who became smitten with her. We find out as Sonya become her trusted confident that Joan is unaware that Leo is leaving for Russia.

Intermittently, we return to the future, with Joan explaining life during the reign of Hitler, and it is during this moment in the future we meet her son, Nick, played by Ben Miles, a Barrister who explains William Mitchell was part of this 1939 Cambridge spy ring and they think she was also.

Back to Cambridge, Joan and Leo have loved and she left moved on as he attempted to radicalize her into becoming a spy for the KGB. She refused and left him. She began working at a science lab for Professor Max Davis, a research scientist who was working, as all allied governments were, on every Top-Secret project to stop the war by any means necessary.


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Like a bad penny, Sonya and Leo continue to show up in Joan’s life. Her work with Max is continuing and the two are sent to Canada on a fact-finding mission and of course, Leo, once again attempts to seduce her out of her knowledge of the bomb.

She and Max, each dedicated to the project, work tirelessly long hours, together, she able to understand the science of atomic energy and he thrilled to be challenged intellectually by both. His affection and respect for her is so well written and well represented in the film.

The same dedication for the project, of course becomes the same drive to stop its usage. Proliferation of life as we find out becomes her driving force to see that the bomb is never used again.

Red Joan is an exceptional film. I really enjoyed it. The film begins and ends with Ms. Dench, in real-time and then throughout she introduces the next chapters of history separated in vignette style segments from the early 1930’s and 1940’s.

The cast, of course, led by Dame Judi Dench along with Sophie Cookson, Ben Miles and Stephen Campbell Moore, is solid throughout. Even as Joan is driven by a cause, she manages to live a full and rewarding life.


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There are several scenes that are surprising and rise above the expected. In a time when women were thought of as no more intelligent than operating the latest domestic appliances, Joan is working side by side the development of the atomic bomb for the United Kingdom.

When a colleague explained he would show here where the tumble dryer was, Max Davis, the professor in charge and her supervisor, explained, her mind is to brilliant to waste on learning to operate a tumble dryer.

It was surprising, not only that someone in the 1940’s had escaped the confines of male chauvinism before the global revolution but that the writers were smart enough to understand the importance of including it.

Modernize and from prospective it is easy to see how Joan was singled out, radicalize, made to feel special, important and drawn into the web of dishonesty and treachery.

Based on the life of Melita Norwood dubbed the Granny Spy by the British tabloids, Red Joan is as fascinating as it is entertaining. An intellectually smart and intriguing film.

Red Joan opens April 19, 2019. See it.

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