“Red Joan” (M) *** and a half
WHILE this film tells a story about a woman who channelled important atomic weapon information to the USSR in the years following their strategic deployment over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it derives much if not all of its information about her private life from a novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney.
Rooney based the novel on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, a Communist Party member who did indeed supply information to Soviet military intelligence. Some sources suggest that while British security services identified her as a risk in 1965, they refrained from questioning her in order to avoid disclosing their methods. The film reflects this. Never tried, she died aged 93 in 2005.
Apart from a brief closing acknowledgement of Norwood’s actions, the film cleaves more closely to the novel, which suggests a Joan motivated less to follow a Marxist ideology than to even the sides in the cold war by letting nuclear weapons secrets out of their bag. Would the Soviet Union have learned how to build atomic weapons if Joan/Melita hadn’t done what she did? The answer must be: “Very likely, yes”.
Filmgoers may take their pick.
Director Trevor Nunn’s film finds its merit in two remarkable performances. As Joan in her youth, Sophie Cookson is almost a match for Judi Dench’s portrayal of Joan in her 90s. Tom Hughes plays Leo, the leftist student who spots young Joan’s potential as a Cambridge physics graduate with strong humanist ethics. As Sonya, Tereza Srbova flits into and out of Joan’s life until she (Joan) is hooked.
“Red Joan” bears scant resemblance to any other English-language film about espionage. Its pace is unhurried. Its muted justification for Joan’s actions is in some ways defensible. Will it generate strong filmgoer attitudes toward the indefensible element of Joan’s actions? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. Does telling the story serve any useful real-politik purpose? No, but it’s moderately entertaining.
At Palace Electric, Dendy and Capitol 6