Red Joan (2018)

TREVOR NUNN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5, 2018Screenplay by Cinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by Toronto International Film Festival 2018

Tom Hughes and Sophie Cookson in Red Joan.

Aging widow Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is puttering about her London living room when the police break in and tell her they are arresting her for treason.  The charge seems ridiculous until, under interrogation, she reveals the adventures of her youth:  as a young woman, played by , she attended Cambridge where she studied physics, meeting a mysterious European émigré (), with whom she becomes fast friends, and her new friend’s politically active cousin () with whom she becomes even closer.  Her new companions are communists dedicated to making a better world, holding film nights and the odd rally on campus that makes them the target of fear and suspicion as the second World War swings into action.  After graduating, Joan is sent to work on the British project to develop the A bomb, and soon her old friends show up hoping that she’ll help their cause by giving them data on what is happening in her laboratory.  Torn between loyalty to a lover and devotion to her country, Joan must also consider the ramifications of her job in the aftermath of Hiroshima, but can never really know for sure if it is her own changing moral barometer or the manipulation of people she doesn’t really trust that is causing her doubt and confusion.  It’s a fascinating story, based loosely on the “Granny Spy” case involving Melita Norwood in 1992 and adapted from Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name, but big screen director Trevor Nunn hasn’t found much more to present in the drama than a pale Imitation Game, the flashbacks dragged down by Cookson’s weak performance.  Nunn’s disinterested direction never lets anything boil to a climax, the whole thing is a politely dull affair that, most surprisingly, never takes the time to contemplate the incredible moral questions at its centre, surprising given the fact that Dench, who is as always divine, is clearly contemplating them.

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