TIFF 2018: Red Joan falls short

Dame Judi Dench in Red Joan. Courtesy of TIFF.

In this era of The Americans and so many other crazy spy stories being told, Red Joan ultimately falls well short of its potential.

While I’m not going to make this a compare/contrast with the popular FX series, it’s extremely disappointing to say that this film disappointed.  Considering that the film is headlined by Dame Judi Dench, the fact that it disappoints is frustrating.

To most people, Joan Stanley (Dame Judi Dench) is just a retired English woman just living her life in a suburban neighborhood.  But Joan isn’t most people.  When Sir William Mitchell passes away, an investigation points to his involvement in a Cambridge Spy Right.  This leads MI5 to arrest Joan with accusations that she may have provided information to Russia during World War 2.

The narrative is mostly grounded through her interrogation with MI5 while flashing back to depict the backstory with younger Joan (Sophie Cookson).  We see how physics student Joan met Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and was introduced to Leo Galich (Tom Hughes).  The native Russian is a classic victim of anti-Semitism.  He’s been forced to leave Russia and Germany yet still feels attracted to serving Russia.  A romantic relationship begins to bloom between the two but he’s off for Russia soon enough.  If she doesn’t pay closer attention, he’ll get her in trouble.  There’s an opportunity to really focus on their relationship but honestly, it’s just a lot of dullness.

Joan starts working for Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore) at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge after college.  At first not being allowed to know what’s going on, Joan is let in on what’s happening.  They are seeking to build an atomic bomb.  We later see the remorse on her face when she finds out how many people were killed.

Once we get back to the interrogation scenes that take place over a week, her son, Nick, refuses to accept this idea of his mom being a spy.  I mean, how could she?!?  Did she ever so the signs while he was growing up?  This must be due to whatever they teach during Spying for Parents 101.

There’s a so much squandered potential in Red Joan.  While Judi Dench is reliable and Sophie Cookson has some good moments, the film is a letdown.  It’s more or less the material they’ve been given.  It more or less left a sour taste in my mouth after viewing.

Where are the stakes in Red Joan?  This is what appears to be missing.  Even the film’s post-script speaks to the lack of stakes.  Interesting news?  Sure, I’ll buy that.  Worthy of telling?  It’s entirely possible with a better film.  Loosely inspired by the life of British KGB agent Melita Norwood, this film does not do her story justice.  Moreover, the pacing surely could have been improved because it felt so slow.  With everything in the news, this is a film that is seemingly quite relevant but ultimately, it’s a letdown.

DIRECTOR:  Trevor Nunn
SCREENWRITER:  Lindsay Shapero
CAST:  Judi Dench, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova

Red Joan held its world premiere during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations program.  IFC Films acquired the US rights. Grade: 2/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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