RED JOAN (based on the real life Melita Norwood) is inspired by true events, but what is true and what is fictionalized are never made clear in the movie. The fact allows the script by Lindsay Shapiro to take certain liberties with the story. The romantic element is strengthened as well as the main character’s reasoning for her actions. “No other atomic bombs have been dropped, have they?” Red Joan insists, implying her spying allowed two countries to be able to scare each other instead of using the bomb if only one country had one. This again is a one-sided argument subject to debate.
The film opens in the year 2000 where an unsuspecting Joan Stanley (Dench), then living a quiet retirement in suburban London is arrested by MI5. She is charged with treason as being a spy leaking atomic secrets to the Russians.
The story flashbacks into the past with a teenage Joan attending Cambridge University. Her chance meeting with a communist (Tereza Srnova) leads her to meet her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes). Leo and Joan begin an affair till he asks her for atomic secrets. Joan has a first class degree in Physics which gives her employment and contact with her lab mentor, Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) who designs the atomic bomb. Joan also has an affair with the then married Max. Torn between her love for Leo (who wants her to betray the project’s secrets) and her growing love for her lab mentor (Stephen Campbell Moore), Joan must make a decision of what she thinks is right for her country.
The script and film put Joan on a high pedestal of doing what is right. Even her lawyer son is on her side, defending her at the end, though it is thoroughly unconvincingly why he has changed his mind as he had initially spurned his mother’s act. “Is anything you ever told me ever true?” he questions her at one point. The answer to an important question is also left out. A reporter asks Joan on the day of her arrest, “How much did the Russians pay you?” She as the film does deliberately ignore the question. It is apparent that the film wants the audience to take her side, which is a difficult task to achieve, given that she has allegedly continued to spy for at least 40 years.
The two important questions left unanswered are whether she received monetary gain for her deed and whether she had leaked other information besides the atomic bomb, which makes her argument false. The fact that the government never prosecuted her due to her old age of 90, (she passed away a few years after) means the truth never fully came out.
Dench has done this kind of role before – that of an old lady where her past catches up on her, as in Stephen Frear’s PHILOMENA, the much better film. Both films also featured a different actress to play the younger Dench character, as Sophie Cookson plays, who does a fair job at that. But Dench does not get to do much here but to sulk and look guilty. Dench performs better when she plays a headstrong character as in PHILOMENA or as M in the James Bond films.
RED JOAN is a muddled romantic espionage story based on true events that leads nowhere.