WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
English born Joan Stanley, a Soviet and communist party sympathizer, becomes employed as a British government civil servant, and gets recruited by the KGB in the mid 1930s. She successfully transfers nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union (Russia), which enables them to keep up with the west in the development of atomic weapons, and remains undetected as a spy for over a half a century.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Everyone likes a good spy movie - and the more British, the better. In the case of Red Joan, however, it somehow manages to present the most boring spy in the world. Loosely based on a true story - emphasis on loosely - the filmmakers took a fascinating tale of a British KGB spy that sped up Russia’s research on the atom bomb, and turned her into some lovesick girl with little agency in her relationships with men. You would think if you had THE Dame Judi Dench on your cast, you would utilise her skills to the best of your ability, but instead, she was a weak afterthought as an insipid widow who has no emotional resemblance to her younger self.
A retired librarian becomes embroiled in a British treason investigation when it is revealed that she was involved with the KGB nearly 30 years ago, becoming the longest-serving spy in history.
The real story of the woman Red Joan is based on has a lot more gravitas than the watered-down frilly version offered up in this film. There is no real love for any of its characters, including the lead, and unfortunately is one movie where the mention of Dench’s name should not be the reason to see it. While British films are generally slower paced than its Hollywood counterparts, which can be great, Red Joan crawled down to a pace that would put Putin to sleep.
It’s not the cast’s fault though - the main issue with this film is its arduous storytelling and intertwining a weak love story that is unnecessarily toxic. We have a young hopeful communist boy that wavers between being inspiring and emotionally manipulative for no real reason, and then we have a scientist that’s weirdly naive for his age and as someone who works with such highly classified information. The film was trying to convey the idea that people are never what they seem and that betrayal can come from the most unlikely places, but it never really lands with both feet for the audience.
And the whole reasoning behind Joan’s betrayal - to save innocents from atomic bombs by putting all the governments on the same footing - was incredibly flimsy and almost an insult to the real woman it was based on - Melita Norwood. She was a straight-up communist, and she stood by her convictions as a fighter for a system she believed was helping the everyday person. If she saw what this film made of her story, she would have had some words with Putin.
Red Joan is a mediocre retelling of a story that was already great in its original form and didn’t need this kind of tinkering and abuse of Dench’s talent. There are other, far better British spy movies that will not put you into a coma.