Red Joan: (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love while smuggling bomb secrets)

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

For 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, Dame Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes onscreen. Message received. A little bit of Dame Judi goes a long way.

Not long enough, however, to save Red Joan, former Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn’s improbably dull tale of a young woman/physics phenom who worked within the British nuclear program as an agent for the Soviet Union.

Physicist Sophie Cookson has sweet Stalinist nothings whispered in her ear by Tom Hughes in Red Joan

Physicist Sophie Cookson has sweet Stalinist nothings whispered in her ear by Tom Hughes in Red Joan

The movie is somewhat of a cheat, since Dench – who dominates all the posters - is only in the film for short bits. These include the dramatic opening (an elderly British woman being charged with 27 breaches of the Official Secrets Act, her front stoop besieged by press) and a few short jumps-to-the-present thereafter, during which she’s repeatedly scolded by her lawyer-son Nick, played by Ben Miles (“What other lies have you told me mother?”).

Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name, that was in turn Inspired by the real-life tale of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who worked secretly for the KGB for 40 years, but whose past became public long after she’d retired. She was never prosecuted for anything.

Cinematically filling in this murky past, Red Joan the movie is a soap opera starring Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as the fictional Joan, a naïve physics student at Cambridge, whose Natasha Fatale-like best friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova), introduces her to her charismatic, rabble-rousing brother Leo (Tom Hughes), with whom she falls so deeply in lust, he calls her “comrade” when they make love. 

Sonya, Leo and their friends give wide-eyed, passionate speeches about the worker’s paradise of Stalinist Russia, and they convince Joan that the atomic bomb she’s working on could, one day, cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in this idealized country and its proletarian society. Giving Stalin the bomb could even the odds and maybe even prevent war.

Ah, the things we do for love. Joan absorbs this message, even as her relationship with Leo becomes a sometime thing, and she rises higher in the top-secret research department working on the British bomb. There’s even a scene set in Canada, where Joan and her boss, Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore) confer with scientists in the colonies.

Joan’s political passions waver somewhat as she enters into a counterintuitive affair with the married Prof. Davies (whose wife doesn’t understand him). Leo, of course, will pop in and out of the picture, like a Communist devil, whispering sweet proletarian nothings in her ear.

Where will Joan’s heart lead her? Towards the siren call of Leo and his Stalinist friends? Or to the comfort and moral integrity of her, um, married lover? The future of the free world and decades of global existential fear of being incinerated hang in the balance (though Red Joan never finds a dramatic way to underline this reality).

Cookson is engaging enough as Joan, mercurial politics and all, but it’s a prosaic tale considering its enormity. And it never really finds its feet as entertainment.

Red Joan. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson and Tom Hughes. Opens Friday, May 3 in Toronto and Vancouver, and May 10 in Montreal.