There's some hefty thespian credibility attached to Red Joan, with stage giant and former British Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Trevor Nunn in the director's chair, and multi-award winner Judi Dench heading up the cast, and by and large it delivers.
The film, which is loosely based on the true story of Londoner Melita Norwood, who was belatedly identified as a spy in 1999, begins as any other day in a quaint Little-English suburb around the turn of the 21st century. Amiable, octogenarian pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench) is pruning the bushes in her front garden before popping in for a nice cup of teas and a read of the paper.
She seems unduly intrigued by the reported death of a former Foreign Office minister, and when Special Branch come knocking at the door we slowly learn why. Documents recovered following the former minister’s death have implicated him in a Soviet spy ring dating back to the 1930s, and all the evidence suggests that cuddly old Joan may have spent much of the thirties and forties giving away Britain’s nuclear secrets to the red menace in the East.
Stylistically, there’s nothing ground-breaking here. Joan is interviewed at the police station, flanked by her disbelieving son and lawyer played by Ben Miles, who will undergo his own intriguing character arc as he slowly learns his entire life has been built on a foundation of lies.
We then cut to a series of flashbacks as young Joan (Cookson) heads to Cambridge University, befriends dedicated communist Sonia, falls for Sonia’s cousin and Stalinist firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes) and finds herself attending Communist Party meetings and anti-Hitler rallies, more as something to do and a means of attracting Leo’s eye than through any great ideological commitment.
When Joan, now a first-class physics graduate, is taken on as an assistant at a top-secret nuclear research centre, she suddenly becomes of dramatically increased importance to her new communist friends.
This is where the film gets interesting, though not entirely in the way we might expect. There are elements of espionage and intrigue, but Joan's treasonous actions are almost incidental to the real story. Rather than settling into the spirit of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or asking Dench to reprise her 'M' role from Bond, Red Joan has thematically more in common with films like The Imitation Game or Their Finest.
Like those films, Red Joan is less interested in what Joan is doing, than how she is perceived while doing it, and what it is assumed she's capable of, as a woman in a certain period of history.
Like in those films Joan, despite being one of the finest minds of her generation, is relegated to the role of assistant because of her gender, and is generally treated by those that don’t know her as someone to make tea, although she may, unbeknownst to them, have just solved one of the burning scientific questions of the day.
Conversely in Joan’s case, however, the misogyny of the world she inhabits can also work in her favour. When a scientist at a Canadian co-research centre is unmasked as a Soviet spy, and evidence leads back to another mole at Joan’s UK facility, her lowly secretary is beyond suspicion and she’s able to smuggle all the evidence out before her cover is blown.
We get to see Joan’s growth as a woman, both through her burgeoning career as a scientist and a spy, and her romantic liaisons through the film, first with Leo, and later her boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), and ultimately we learn the true motivation for Joan’s actions – not revolutionary fervour or a desire to betray her country, but horror at the atrocities in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the firm conviction that only if both sides in the Cold War possess this terrible weapon can we be sure it will never be used again.
Red Joan is thoughtful and entertaining fare. It's not a high point among Dench's many performances, but that's largely by design. Her bumbling, elderly Joan is intentionally more understated and bland than Cookson's younger version, and that only serves to make the notion of picking her up for her "crimes" seven, nuclear annihilation-free decades later all the more farcical.