Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 17, 2019 11:24 pm 
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The discovery of a retiree lady spy

Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson portray the woman who passed the key to Britain’s atom bomb to the Soviet Union in Trevor Nunn’s drama, inspired by the true story of KGB spy Melita Norwood.

The film starts with the elderly Joan who's finally been found out and engages in a series of lively flashbacks, her recollections, as she is questioned by authorities and talks to her son, a barrister she hopes will defend her. Most of the action focuses on the young Joan who's involved in the exciting wartime business. She is played by Sophie Cookson, Roxy in the "Kingsman" series. I love the moment when her middle-aged son says, "Is anything you ever told me true?" And the elderly Joan replies, "Everything having to do with you."

It's also a wonderful paradox that she didn't tell anything to her family because she had signed the Official Secrets Act, and, to honor her early leftist allegiances, prevent an imbalance of power in the world, and please her pro-Soviet, Russian Jewish boyfriend Leo (Tom Hughes), she has passed on the atomic bomb to the USSR. It made sense to her at the time! Eventually, her son comes around to her point of view and stands by her before the press.

One thinks of the marvelous 1991 TV episode "A Question of Attribution" (really an unusually wonderful film, which I originally saw as part of the San Francisco Film Festival) written by Alan Bennett and directed by John Schlesinger, about that other Cambridge spy, Sir Anthony Blunt (played by James Fox). Why is that so much better than this? Obviously for one thing because it takes place in the present time, without flashbacks. It's excellent theater, not a TV episode at all. Red Joan, alas, is a movie that's, actually, a TV episode. The whole story is reduced to - violins strumming - a series of love disappointments for young wartime Joan.

Yet this is a picture about "the danger of underestimating women," and shows they could spy as well as or better than men. A cop is embarrassed to open young Joan's Tampon box so doesn't find the Minox spy camera tucked inside.

Tom Hughes is well known to some, but was a revelation to me as the sexy and somewhat slimy Leo, the German Jewish Cambridge student who young Joan is in love with. Hughes has panache, even if he lays it on a bit thick. Stephen Campbell Moore, whom I knew as the young teacher in The History Boys (2006), is reliably decent as Max, the head British scientist on the bomb project who's also in love with young Joan, probably more than Leo. And Judi Dench? Yes, she's fine as the the tweedy, frumpy, put-upon retiree spy lady. But her framing presence has a tendency to dampen down the drama of young Joan's story. Unfortunately, neither young Joan nor old Joan is interesting as a spy, never being in that much danger.

In retrospect good English spy tales like A Question of Attribution and An Englishman Abroad, the two tales spun by Alan Bennett and filmed by John Schlesinger, are partly good because the motivations of their main characters remain inexplicable, and perhaps are so to themselves. Joan too much justifies, too much explains.

The period aspects of the English production are low keyed and impeccable.

Red Joan, 101 mins., debuted at Toronto, Sept. 2018, and showed at several other festivals, including San Francisco, where it was screened for this review. Theatrical release begins 19 April 2019.

SFFILM showtime was Sat, Apr 13 at 4:00 pm at the Castro Theatre.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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