REVIEW: Red Joan [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 101 minutes
    Release Date: April 19th, 2019 (UK)
    Studio: Lionsgate / IFC Films
    Director(s): Trevor Nunn
    Writer(s): Lindsay Shapero

That’s a peculiar way of putting it.

The government agents within Trevor Nunn‘s Red Joan arrest Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) under suspicion of treason and enthusiastically ask who politicized her because to them only an outsider could have brainwashed someone to act against his/her country on behalf of a foreign enemy. It’s an understandably emotional reaction experienced by a patriot discovering a truth so wildly unbelievable to someone under the belief that his/her nation is the true protagonist of world history. It’s a logical one too considering we’re talking about an Allied superpower like England in direct opposition to the Soviet Union. The former were the good guys during World War II—even Germans acknowledge that as fact today. Things ultimately get murky due to the reality that, for a time, so was the USSR.

Adapted by Lindsay Shapero from a novel by Jennie Rooney that itself was loosely inspired by Melita Norwood’s life as a KGB spy, Nunn’s film posits the complex notion that nothing is so concretely black and white. You don’t have to look farther than America today and its growing alt-right population fueled and sanctioned (willingly or not) by partisan agents at the highest branches of government to realize politicization and radicalization of dissenters can come from within. The knee-jerk response to something like Joan passing on classified documents pertaining to Britain’s atomic bomb research to the Russians so they could catch up quicker (and therefore ensure the Cold War) is to call her a traitor. But what if she also prevented Britain from destroying its enemies without recourse?

The problem of “patriotism” lies with blind allegiance. In a country born on the backs of revolutionaries, you’d hope Americans would be able to read between the lines. The victors of the Revolutionary War were objectively traitors right up until they won. They saw injustice and did whatever they could to save lives and cement a future where democratic values trumped monarchist rule. So where Russia turning around and decimating England without warning would unequivocally damn Norwood (by way of Joan) for her part in those deaths, the decision to conversely even the playing field rather than tip the scales the other way doesn’t. We’re only the “good guys” until we aren’t. Human nature dictates the Allies could have gone rogue if not held in check.

That doesn’t excuse what the character of Joan does as much as attempt to ensure those who hold themselves as just concede there are always extenuating circumstances. It would be easy to dismiss someone in her position as being compromised and that’s why law enforcement push so hard to make such narratives stick. They create a scapegoat to transform nuanced situations into binary ones because wiggle room risks the potential for subsequent radicalization by questioning whether the accused’s motives held water. It feeds the machine, fills the coffers, and recruits trustworthy citizens into becoming lemmings more interested in preserving the nation’s prejudiced power than their own wellbeing. This is why Americans refuse to accept their government’s critical role in creating their own worst enemies (see ISIS and more).

Red Joan therefore seeks to look behind the curtain and replay the events that brought Joan (Sophie Cookson in flashback) to her decision. Was she always a communist sympathizer thanks to her Russian-born Cambridge classmate Sonya (Tereza Srbova)? Was she swayed by a love affair with the charismatic Leo (Tom Hughes)? Or was it simply the way her male counterparts on the bomb program reveled in the science of destruction without a care in the world towards the moral cost of their work that opened her eyes to the road their secrecy and competitive nature with supposed allies paved? Maybe it was one or perhaps a combination of all three with a few more reasons piled on top. In the end, however, people will conflate whistleblowing with terrorism.

And therein lies the story’s power to look beyond surfaces too often buffed to reflect attention away from internal complicity. This isn’t about trading secrets as much as accountability and how we’re so willing to punish the symptom rather than the disease itself. I only wish Shapero and Nunn were able to shift focus upon this aspect more instead of constantly doubling down on the remnants of romance between Joan and Leo since a wealth of evidence proves any choice she ultimately makes won’t be ruled by love. This truth is made clear enough at the start that it becomes frustrating to watch the dance between them reignite over and over again. If the film has a villain, it’s him. So this desire to empathize is somewhat disingenuous.

Her rejection is actually crucial to her relatability since it serves as a concrete foundation for her actions. She’s doing what she does for the “right” reasons insofar as what she believes is right. There can be no wavering on that fact if we’re to buy any opportunity for contrition or forgiveness at the end. Maybe she was manipulated a bit and maybe she didn’t quite weigh the possibilities of her choice going very wrong, but nobody can deny her conviction. That in and of itself is enough since it’s also what the men of this era had. Those working on the Manhattan Project were convinced only they could wield the A-bomb’s might. Everyone else was convinced they needed it to keep pace and guarantee survival.

You cannot deny the social relevance of Joan as a legitimate part of the research either (her hiring a direct result of Stephen Campbell Moore‘s project leader Max Davis wanting an assistant who understood the science and could be an asset/equal). How the prudish conservatism of the men surrounding her lets her clandestine operations unfold in plain sight is depicted with humor and potency while her ability to be in that room lends credence to her decisions being sounder than sensationalism would initially allow. It’s enough of a necessary vantage point to render what’s an otherwise competently made work worth your time. Justice needs more patriots who’re willing to point out their side’s flaws—especially now. Joan might have been a spy, but her sole allegiance was mankind.

[1] Judi Dench as “Joan Stanley” in Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[2] Sophie Cookson as “Young Joan” in Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release. Photo Nick Wall.
[3] Stephen Campbell Moore as “Max” in Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release. Photo Nick Wall.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.