Dame Judi Dench goes from playing 007’s boss M to a former spy named Joan Stanley whose past catches up with her during the retirement stage of her life in Trevor Nunn’s “Red Joan,” based on the novel by Jennie Rooney. The film is loosely based on a true story but if you’re expecting a riveting action-packed spy thriller, think again. Sure, Joan is out to save the world, but romance and inner conflict get in the way.
The performances by Dench, Cookson and Moore are solid, and while I did enjoy the film, there were several times I forgot I was watching a film that dealt with espionage.
The last time Trevor Nunn directed a feature film it was 1998’s “Twelfth Night,” a loose adaptation of Shakespeare, so of course, you want to follow that with a loose adaptation of a real spy. In this case, it’s Melita Norwood, a secretary for the British Metals Research Association, who passed sensitive files about Britain’s Atomic bomb to the Russians in order to level the playing field. Norwood’s story is fascinating, but Nunn’s film and Rooney’s novel were only inspired by Norwood or we would be watching a film called “Red Melita.” Yeah, it’s not as catchy.
Norwood wasn’t exposed as a spy until she was 87. Dench is 84, so she’s at the right age to play the character, but they must have used makeup to age the actress who usually appears glamorous and 20 years younger. Also, Dench is only featured in a handful of scenes that take place in the present day (here it’s the year 2000) while most of the film flashes back to the late 30s where we meet a younger version of Joan (played by Sophie Cookson) studying physics at Cambridge.
Joan is the quiet and naïve student who meets the vivacious Sonia (Tereza Srbova), a fellow student and Russian emigre who introduces her to dashing cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), a German-Jewish communist who refers to Joan as his “little comrade.” The two begin a love affair, Joan goes to work for Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), the director of the Tube Alloys project, which is developing the atomic bomb. She passes on secrets to the Russians thinking that they’ll build an atomic bomb to stop the Germans by leveling the playing field as WWII segues into the Cold War.
“Red Joan” is an absorbing film with good performances that far too often leave the espionage elements behind to focus on the romance. Nunn is only following Rooney’s novel, but he’s also an English theater director and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, so he’s probably accustomed to focusing on the affairs of the heart. In her scenes, Dench is whittled down to a mumbling senior citizen in denial still the flaws reside in her character, not her performance.
After appearing in eight Bond films, Dench relinquishes her M role to Ralph Fiennes in the first American helmed film of the franchise (directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga), the upcoming Bond 25 starring Daniel Craig in his final 007 role and Rami Malek as the villain. After all those films it takes a little bit of getting used to seeing Dench reduced to a little old lady who feels she’s done nothing wrong. Dench worked under Nunn during the early days of the Royal Shakespeare Company which probably attracted her to the project. Think of “Red Joan” as a love story about a woman with a conscience instead of a spy thriller and you’ll be in the right frame of mind when viewing the engrossing drama.