The question you need to ask when making a “based on a true story” kind of movie, is if that story is truly worthy of being told at all. Red Joan is a spy thriller, about a woman who worked for the British government to build the bomb, but became fed up with the war and death of WWII, so she took it upon herself to help her communist friends by sharing information with Russia. Judi Dench stars as the title character Joan Stanley, a promising scientist at Cambridge, living in a world where women are just expected to stand by, while the men discover how to split an atom. It's a well crafted film, with perfectly fine performances, and an engaging narrative, but nothing we can't learn from a simple Google search. Red Joan is never boring, but lacks the tension, and energy of other spy thrillers for me to recommend that you see.  

Red Joan

When I think of great spy films, I immediately think of Bridge of Spies, or Stalag 17, or any of the various John Le Carre novels that have adapted so well to the screen. Red Joan sets things up nicely, with an elderly Joan (Dench) sitting in her living room, looking at the paper, with a headline detailing a man who has been arrested by MI6. This man was William Mitchell, an old friend of Joan's, and a hint that Joan will be receiving a knock on her door by the authorities. When they do pick her up, we flashback to young Joan (played strongly by Sophie Cookson), and learn about how promising start at University, her love for science, and love for an inspired man named Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) set her on a path to becoming a defector of the British government.

The way the story is told by writer Lindsay Shapero is well paced in a back and forth fashion, between Joan's early romantic days of working in labs and then forward to her elderly years, trapped in a state of disbelief, seeing that after all these years, her past is rising up to catch her. On paper, with two expert actors such as Cookson and Dench, they are the only reason Red Joan is tolerable. At the end it is more than frustrating, as a narrative that feels incredibly monotone, with multiple sequences of “important” conversations between older Joan and detective agents, or scenes where police officers enter into their labs to search Joan's boss and future love interest Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore). These are often repetitive and the only moments that generate any excitement. Although it leads to another conversation about embellishing a true story, I desperately wished Red Joan had a chase scene, a shootout, something to turn it into a mundane narrative, to a legitimate spy thriller.

That's not to say that audiences might enjoy more out of Red Joan than I did. Director Trevor Nunn is working with a stellar cast that looks the part and delivers their best. A part of me just wanted much more, a deeper dive into the psychology or Joan's actions, or the conflicted politics behind creating a bomb and using it. This is a narrative that is so straight forward, one begins to wonder if the director and writer just copied a Wikipedia page and said let's make this a movie? Many films in the past, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Munich, any James Bond movie, or even the recent Atomic Blonde, know how to balance espionage, and action. Although I know Red Joan is not trying to be one of those movies, it also lacked a spark in every way.

Can I recommend Red Joan? In a way I could. It teeters on the 2 ½ star rating more than below, but it's also a movie that can just pass by. The story is interesting, no doubt, but it is also the kind of thing that you read in Vanity Fair or GQ and find it to be engaging, yet never enough to make into a movie. Judi Dench is good and the direction is solid, but Red Joan is missing a spark. It disappointed me, I wanted to love it more. I just wasn't seeing red.


Written by: Leo Brady