Netflix UK film review: Red Joan
Ivan Radford | On 29, Dec 2019
Director: Trevor Nunn
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes
Watch Red Joan online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
The words “Judi Dench” and “spy thriller” don’t usually appear together in the same sentence, so the prospect of Red Joan is a hugely intriguing one. Inspired by a true story, it sees Dench play Joan Stanley, a widow who is arrested by the Secret Service. Why? Because she was an informant to the Soviet government years ago, passing over classified scientific intel, such as how to build the atomic bomb.
It’s a story that couldn’t be timelier, especially given its factual roots: it’s based on Jennie Rooney’s novel, which is, in turn, based on the the real life Melita Norwood. It’s only when Jean’s colleague dies that her ties to the KGB are revealed, and that kicks into motion a string of flashbacks as she explains her story and her motivations to Special Branch.
And so we see Joan (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) recruited as a young woman by fellow Cambridge student Sonya (Tereza Srbova, Eastern Promises) – and, moreover, the handsome Leo (Tom Hughes). Jumping back and forth from the past to the present is a familiar framework, but one that can be used to draw out contradictions and tensions. Dench and Cookson give good performances the national traitor, someone who moves between conflict and conviction about doing the right thing.
But if Joan’s real motivations are meant to be the central source of suspense, the script fails to bring that to the fore until the final act, which means that the bulk of the runtime is less concerned with espionage and more with Joan’s fledgling romance with Leo. The always-excellent Hughes is as watchable as ever, but Trevor Nunn’s direction and the plodding screenplay are determined to make the film’s relationship as conventional as possible, taking what should be a refreshingly different perspective on the spy genre and turning it into something disappointingly forgettable.
Red Joan is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.