Dame Judi Dench can’t save spy drama Red Joan from increasing boredom

Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench is a British physicist who led a double life as the longest-serving British spy for the KGB. The film’s inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, but as Sarah Voon explains, it simply cannot reflect the danger and intrigue of the real story.

With an intriguing looking trailer, expectations for Red Joan—directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Dame Judi Dench (playing the titular heroine in her later years)—were elevated. I really wanted to be transported by the provocative-sounding tale this WW2 spy thriller/drama, based on a true story, promised.

When the MI5 come knocking, Joan, a woman living out her dotage in a small English village is at peace in her garden or painting—so far, so innocent. When she is suddenly arrested and interrogated about her University years at Cambridge in the 1930’s and later employment on a Top Secret government project, we discover this sweet Granny might just have some big secrets. Or is it just the one secret—and bunch of increasingly boring filler…Judi Dench, please save us!

Although a good-looking film, a dogged penchant for extreme closeups exploring young Joan’s (Sophie Cookson) face looking fretful, guilty, kissy, or lovesick were in lieu, it would seem, of developing convincing supportive subplots and building the sort of tension potential world destruction demands. The flashbacks of her interactions with the handsome and fervent Russian radical commie Leo (Tom Hughes), introduced to bookish Joan by her new glamorous-yet-predictable party pal Sonya (Tereza Srbova), and repeated attempts to fully indoctrinate Joan and eventually wheedle nuclear secrets out of her, should make for some thrilling hooks. Unfortunately, they become repetitive and Joan despite having fallen for Leo keeps refusing to wholeheartedly “come to the party”.

My disappointment with Red Joan is mainly that there wasn’t a more multi-dimensional story about this woman, more danger and intrigue woven into her duality, more tension as we question her motives and techniques. Instead we are never challenged by flaws or grit in her character and it almost feels she gave up certain intel because she was sick of being harassed. Even scant research on Melita Norwood (British civil servant upon whom this story is based) suggests that she was a staunch commie and the KGB’s most valued British intelligence source, having a covert espionage career until her surprise arrest for treason when she was in her eighties… That’s the film I wanted to see.