In certain circles (and in scads of UK tabloids), Melita Norwood was known as the “granny spy.” In 1994, the aging former British civil servant was outed as a former KGB spy who passed nuclear secrets to the USSR. That came as quite a shock to her family and friends, who were likely only somewhat soothed by the government’s decision not to prosecute her because of her age.
While Trevor Nunn’s “Red Joan” isn’t an exact biographical treatment of Norwood’s story (her Russian code name was Hola), the spy drama pulls generously from both her life and the Jennie Rooney novel inspired by it. The result is a strange, bifurcated tale of love and espionage, with Judi Dench stuck in a thankless role that does nothing to capitalize on her talents. The film is worse for it.
At least Sophie Cookson, who plays the younger version of Joan throughout the film, gets more to do by turning in a role significant enough to make audiences wonder why Dench even signed on for what amounts to a bit part. For a film dedicated to exploring a so-called “granny spy,” all the best parts of “Red Joan” follow much more traditional paths, tagging along with a wide-eyed would-be spy as she struggles with her loyalties.
Of course, it kicks off with the granny stuff, opening with Dench doddering around a bland suburban garden just moments before her life is about to forever change. She seems like a regular grandmother, and when the fuzz come calling, she — and her neighbors — look predictably baffled.
But she’s not that innocent. As older Joan is hauled in for questioning, “Red Joan” flashes back to her college years at Cambridge, imagining Joan (now played by Cookson) as a smart but shy physics student who cherishes science above all else. That all changes when a glamorous (and perhaps dangerous) new friend literally tumbles into her window after a night “out on the razzle,” instantly pulling Joan into a Communist world that will forever change her life. Sonya (Tereza Srbova) is wild and free, but she’s nothing compared to her intriguing cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), who upends Joan’s entire existence through big ideas and absolutely terrible pillow talk (most of it consists of imagining the current world destroyed and referring to Joan as his “little comrade”).
The “young Joan” sequences are far more vital than the present-day offerings, as Dench is forced to react to her own memories while sitting in a sterile interrogation room, or struggling alone in her plain house, or wincing at her baffled adult son (Ben Miles). As the older Joan, Dench portrays the former spy as guileless and insipid, answering pointed questions from government bigwigs with lies so transparent that you have to wonder how she got this far in the spy game anyway.
“Everybody did it back then! It was the ‘in’ thing,” she tells her interrogators when they inquire about her red-leaning college years, and while Dench’s delivery and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero’s lines are just dull, Cookson’s performances livens things up quite a bit. Dench might say that it was the en vogue thing to be a Communist sympathizer, but the flashbacks allow Cookson to show the audience the same truism with more depth
The juxtaposition between the two time periods is jarring, with young Joan enjoying intellectually stimulating and secretive work (along with some stimulating and secretive personal endeavors as well), only to end up bored and alone in a featureless, cookie cutter home. And while that might be a reductive way of illuminating the differences between the two Joans, it’s one that works. The flashback sequences do more to contextualize the moments the older Joan is forced to answer for than anything else in the film, including Dench’s performance, which makes off with a well-timed hand squeeze as its most emotive moment.
Young Joan’s tumble into espionage is compelling enough stuff, especially when spiced up with some romantic intrigues that make it clear how emotional the ordeal was for Joan (you’ll find no such feeling in Dench’s performance). But at some point, the film decides that its biggest mystery is which man Joan ends up marrying. It’s a strange choice for a film that routinely tosses in incidents of casual sexism for Joan to reckon with: “Nobody would suspect us, we’re women,” Sonya tells Joan as they begin work on their spycraft, and she’s right. Hell, what’s a spy story when there are sexy men to choose between?
Norwood wasn’t prosecuted for her crimes, which made it sting all the more when, 15 years after her outing, it was discovered that she was even more valuable to the KGB than initially believed. Nunn’s film doesn’t offer the same twist, instead opting to give Joan the chance to explain — not atone — for her crimes in front of crowd of onlookers, some of them even shouting the film’s title back at her. It’s the final nail in an underwhelming coffin, and as is worryingly prevalent throughout the entire feature, it’s a scene that’s done better, sharper, and with more style much earlier in the film. Cleave this spy tale in two, and forget the “granny” stuff, as that’s the least interesting thing about “Red Joan.”
IFC Films releases “Red Joan” in theaters on Friday, April 19.