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Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

In 1999, a widowed octogenarian living in Bexleyheath named Melita Norwood was unmasked as a Soviet spy, accused of slipping Uncle Joe secrets about the Bomb. “Oh dear,” she said when doorstepped by a reporter. “I thought I got away with it.”

There’s something distinctly quaint and English about that statement, as if she had been caught sneaking her rubbish into the neighbour’s bins. It’s fitting, then, that Red Joan, the fictionalisation of Norwood’s life as a Stalinist spook (first as a novel by Jennie Rooney and now in Trevor Nunn’s stiff-upper-lipped film) should also be stiflingly quaint and very English.

The real-life story has been shorn of its rougher and more ideologically thorny edges. By all accounts, Norwood was an unapologetic comrade to the end, distributing pamphlets around the suburbs and supping from a Che Guevara mug. In Red Joan, however, she’s played by Dame Judi Dench as a bewildered pensioner with a fondness for doilies, and in the film’s extensive flashbacks by Sophie Cookson as a prude with little taste for atomic politics. The strident radicalism of the 1930s has also been reduced to the allegedly seductive figure of Leo (Tom Hughes), a Russo-German exile whose convictions seem to waver at the same rate as his accent.

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If you’re going to set part of your film in such a fraught and fractious period, negotiate the dark underbelly of inter­national spycraft and deal with the threat of nuclear apocalypse, it’s best not to lean on the tired conventions of prestige drama.

Red Joan suffers from the Curse of Masterpiece Theatre (Nunn’s background is the Shakespearean stage). Everything is slightly too stiff and a touch too proper. Characters say things like “You silly goose!” with total earnestness.

And there’s far too little of Dench. Most of her fleeting scenes are set in a whitewashed interview room. Still, she can often elevate the mundane and everyday into something more engaging, and some of the film’s most charged and subtle moments are down to her skill.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.