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Film Review: 'Red Joan' - Judi Dench inspired by the life of Melita Norwood

Red Joan

“In the same circumstances, I know that I would do the same thing again”—Melita Norwood, convicted KGB spy. 

Red Joan is an adaptation of the very readable novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, which was in turn inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, a British woman who was discovered at age 87 to have been a spy for the KGB many years earlier. The film premiered at TIFF, where its director, Trevor Nunn, along with three cast members, made themselves available for questions from the audience following the screening, providing a great deal of insight into the making of the film.

The story opens in the year 2000, with an elderly widow and mother, Joan Stanley, being unexpectedly arrested for espionage. Her middle-aged son insists there must be some mistake: his mother has never, to his knowledge, been political, must less a radical agent for a foreign state. Mrs Stanley herself seems every bit the sweet, harmless old lady her family and neighbours take her to be. As the charges are read, we move into an extended flashback, seeing Joan Stanley as a young woman studying science at Cambridge in the 1930s and 40s, and gradually learning the truth about her background, her involvement in espionage, and finally, her motives. The film alternates between brief glimpses of the arrest and interrogation, and the main plotline of Joan’s time at university and the few years following.

Dame Judi Dench plays the elderly Joan Stanley with predictable sensitivity and acuteness – director Trevor Nunn made clear he began the filmmaking process with Dench in mind for the role – while Sophie Cookson (the Kingsman series, Ashes in the Snow) is young Joan, an intelligent but naive girl, a diligent student, excited by the opportunity for higher education, which was available to few women at the time. Her life is changed when she is befriended by Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a glamorous, enigmatic fellow student of Russian background. The rather meek and insecure Joan is impressed by Sonya’s sophistication and self-confidence, and intrigued by her inscrutable manner and avant-garde thinking, and makes no objection when Sonya takes her to meetings of young Communists and includes her in their discussions. At one such meeting, Joan meets Sonya’s cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), and becomes infatuated with him. Flattered by the friendship of the clever, well-travelled, rather dashing pair, Joan goes along with involvement in their political activities, quickly learning to hide any questions or disapproval, and missing any gradually emerging hints that they may be nurturing the friendship because they find Joan potentially useful.

The plot is something of a slow-paced suspense story, in which Joan is drawn into Sonya and Leo’s politics-driven world, and begins a love affair with the charming but elusive Leo. Their relationship is consistently disappointing to her, as the politically zealous Leo avoids emotional commitment on principle; actress Sophie Cookson, who plays the young Joan, remarked that they are forever at odds in that Joan “acted mainly despite politics,” while Leo was “all politics.”  After graduation, she takes a job with a research firm involved in the early stages of developing atomic weapons. Having already seen the outcome in the older Joan Stanley’s arrest, we await the explanation of how she came to leak secret information to the KGB, and of her reasons, as the Second World War and the political disturbance that follows impacts on all the characters in different ways. Throughout the story, there is a tension between Joan’s intelligence, sensible attitude to life, and willingness to ask uncomfortable questions on the one hand, and her conventional or traditionally feminine attitudes on the other. She becomes somewhat dominated by the convictions and political purposes of her two friends, who kindly but firmly dismiss what they regard as Joan’s sentimental notions or middle-class morality, or else take advantage of her feelings in order to manipulate her. Their influence gradually takes on a more sinister tone when the darker side of the Soviet system and of international politics shows itself.

Screenwriter Lindsay Shapero wisely alters the plotline of the novel slightly, holding back details of Joan’s thoughts and intentions. This approach makes for greater suspense, and also allows Joan Stanley to clearly speak for herself only at the film’s conclusion. It is at this point it becomes clear that almost everyone has misjudged and underestimated Joan, her ideas, her intentions, and her personal integrity: not only those who knew her, who saw her as sentimental, weak, and easily led, but as it turns out, the audience as well. In a simple but touching finale, the conflicts among ethics, loyalty, patriotism, and personal responsibility – of “loyalty to nation vs loyalty to humanity” as Nunn expressed it – which Joan had struggled with are made clear by the simple statement of her much older self.

It is not necessary to either approve or disapprove of Joan’s espionage in order to appreciate her story. Her choices were driven by events in her life and in the world, and by her own quietly but firmly held beliefs, far more than by the Communist ideology Sonya and Leo tried to instil in her. They saw her as their dupe, just as the police who question her believe she must have been young, silly, and easily led, but there is more to Joan’s story and to the actions she chose. Trevor Nunn regards Joan as “an intelligent woman whose conclusions were not based entirely on politics.” He finds her courageous, in fact, and compares her to the mother of Coriolanus, an ordinary woman who faces an army to save a city. The film combines the personal with the political in a gripping story of one woman’s life- and world-altering decision.