Red Joan starts like any number of recent ‘grey pound’ movies, with Judi Dench calmly tending to the greenery in her front garden. Within a few minutes, though, the police are banging on the door and accusing her of being a Soviet spy. “I don’t want a lawyer,” says Dench’s Joan, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Through a series of flashbacks to Cambridge University in the 1930s, spanning two decades including the Second World War, we learn about the younger Joan’s (Sophie Cookson) links to communism, through lover Leo (Tom Hughes) and friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova). After her graduation, she gets a job with Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) at the practically named Tube Alloys – an organisation that is secretly working on an atomic weapon.
While the subject matter of Red Joan diverges from the image of an elderly woman doing a spot of gardening, the tone never really does. This is a cosy, electric blanket of a movie, ill fit to raise the pulse rate beyond its resting level, for an hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon. Lindsay Shapero’s script is based on a novel of the same name, which is in turn loosely inspired by the real life of Melita ‘Granny Spy’ Norwood. However, any spy thriller intrigue is sacrificed for dusty poshos in dustier rooms, exchanging even dustier folders holding secrets.
With that said, there’s something warmly entertaining about Red Joan. The performances are solid, with Sophie Cookson in particular giving just enough of an imitation of Dench to make her a believable younger version, without losing any of her own personality. She’s a driven woman, written with a complexity by way of her moral and ideological positions shifting in reaction to the film’s events. Dench, meanwhile, palpably carries the guilt and turmoil of having to keep her actions hidden for half a lifetime.
The male characters are rather less convincing, with Shapero’s script giving its weakest and most vapid material to them. Tom Hughes and Stephen Campbell Moore battle valiantly against rather bland characterisation and dialogue that turns them into little more than either sinister manipulators or lovesick puppies, depending on the scene. Tereza Srbova brings some fun as a sexually-minded German, but her shtick similarly saddles the line of caricature.
There’s nothing particularly ambitious about Red Joan and it winds toward an ending that’s a laughable slice of cliché. But the performances are strong enough to lift the whole thing shoulder high. The result is a movie that might not ever be all that thrilling, but it is never anything other than watchable. It’s faint praise for sure, but the target audience will find plenty to love here. Expect the midweek, tea-and-biscuit screenings to do excellent business.
Dir: Trevor Nunn
Scr: Lindsay Shapero
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova
Prd: David Parfitt
DOP: Zac Nicholson
Music: George Fenton
Run time: 101 mins
Red Joan is in UK cinemas now.