In author Jennie Rooney’s fictional novel Red Joan, an eighty-seven-year-old English widow named Joan Stanley reads the obituary of someone she used to know. A man called Sir William Mitchell has passed away. The book gives voice to Joan’s thoughts as she reads the cause of death, a cause that comes as no surprise to Joan. ‘What she had already known was this: that he would appear to die peacefully in his sleep.’ The sentence alone grabs attention.
Upstairs on her bedside table is a gift once given to Joan by Sir William. It’s a medal, and in the grand tradition of spy novels and undercover clandestine operations, the medal contains a lethal drug. Curare. It paralyzes muscles. “Death by asphyxiation,” Joan ponders. “So motionless that it passes for peaceful.” So, when MI5 agents suddenly knock at her door, fully aware of why they’re there, Joan briefly considers suicide. That’s how it is in the book.
In the new film from director Trevor Nunn adapted from Rooney’s novel, Joan (Judi Dench) has seen the newspaper headline. There’s a knock at the door. It’s a forceful knock. Somewhat bewildered, Joan folds the newspaper and answers the door. She’s faced by two stern-looking MI5 agents who waste little time. They arrest her for treason and take her into London for interrogation. Smart, quick, efficient. And there’s the difference between the novel and the film.
If you know the novel, the big screen enactment is immediately lacking the nuance of the written word. It will be the film’s task to fill in those gaps as events unfold. Show don’t tell. But that’s the problem. While writer Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay is a faithful adaptation of the book, nothing that follows in the film ever quite draws you in with the same keen sense of shock and mystery that author Rooney managed to convey in just a few short paragraphs. Instead of keeping you glued with a series of what-happens-next flashbacks that should, scene by scene, reveal the truth behind Joan’s background as a young physicist who leaked documents to the Soviet Union, you get a drab period piece of romantic melodrama with a lifeline that flattens long before the story concludes.
Accused of breaching twenty-seven counts of the Official Secrets Act, the United Kingdom’s legal protection against espionage and the unauthorized disclose of secret information, Joan is taken to an interrogation room. “There’s a file on you starting in 1938 when you went to Cambridge University,” states the no-nonsense government agent Ms. Hart (Nina Sosanya). When confronted with evidence that Joan attended communist party meetings at Cambridge, the elderly lady dismisses it as nothing. “It was the in thing,” she tries to explain. “The world was so different then.”
In a series of lengthy flashbacks, a youthful Joan (Sophie Cookson) is slowly enlisted by her comrade friends to leak secret information that would benefit the Soviets. With the breakout of war, Joan is hired to assist handsome Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore) with his top-secret equations and explorations into the development of an atomic bomb, one that has a British flag on it. But through romance and seduction, Joan is recruited into the communist party by an equally handsome Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) who convinces her that in order to maintain the balance of power and the peace of the planet, she should leak the documents. After all, didn’t Churchill promise to share information with the Soviets as allies during the war, even though he went back on his word?
Joan is hesitant, but when America drops the bomb on Hiroshima resulting with 135,000 dead, then with Nagasaki with 74,000 more people killed, she thinks of the human cost and what a balance between enemies would do. As treasonous as her intentions are, she leaks the documents.
The issue at stake is that those flashbacks to Cambridge, her romance and seduction with Leo, her love for the professor, and her eventual act of doing something she knows is legally wrong yet believes is morally right, have no sense of urgency. It’s amazing how a story that should pull you in at every moment develops into such a dreary turn of events. Director Nunn’s success on the stage is beyond question, but as a filmmaker, despite his 1998 fun and thoroughly engaging big screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, his flashbacks fail to rise above uninspired.
By contrast, the modern-day sequences – it’s May 2000 – are compelling. You wish the film remained with Judi Dench longer as she relates and reflects on the past, instead of constantly cutting away. Her interrogation and its effects on her lawyer son, Nick (Ben Miles) have an immediacy to them that the flashbacks never possess. “I thought you were over-educated for a librarian,” her son tells her as he learns of his mother’s secret past.
There’s also the issue of a true story. With Rooney’s novel, there was never any doubt that you were reading engrossing fiction. Depending on the individual jacket designs and what publication you possessed, it’s possible that some were not altogether aware that the story was inspired by a real event. But when the film begins with the important looking white letters on a black background that reads Inspired By A True Story, there’s a tendency to think that, with all the regular narrative embellishments, you’re watching what basically happened. But there was no Red Joan. However, there was a Melita Norwood. She didn’t have a son, and her involvement with the KGB was considerably more involved throughout the years than the single event depicted here. Plus, she was never prosecuted for her actions. She died in 2005.
After seeing the film followed by some home research on Norwood’s real-life story, you can’t help but wonder how considerably more important the whole project would have been had Red Melita’s story been told. As a fictional novel, Red Joan is a solid read. As a film, it’s simply dull.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes