“Red Joan” – Review (Does This Time-Period Biopic Manage To Stand Out?)

Red Joan (IFC Films)
Red Joan (IFC Films)

“RED JOAN” is a British spy film starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson. Directed by Trevor Nunn and based on the novel by Jennie Rooney the story follows a British civil servant that becomes a communist sympathizer recruited by the KGB in the 1930’s. During the race for atomic weapons she transferred information and would go undetected for decades before being brought in for questioning as an elderly woman. Now I did have a good time with this movie. I thought it was well-crafted from a technical aspect. The performances were more than capable. The story peeled back some fascinating layers that intrigued me.

When I walked out of the theater I was not at all disappointed. But something just made me feel mildly letdown. I think this movie showcases some appealing elements that would go on to result in some untouched potential. Which was why I enjoyed what I watched, but also felt it could go on to be potentially forgettable in the long run. The structure of the story is one we’ve seen before in films similar. Yet the two time-line formula was also one that could have served this subject-matter perfectly. We get present day Joan Stanley played by Judi Dench who is living a normal life before being brought in for questioning for her actions many decades earlier. This questioning leads to extended flashback sequences that fill in the majority of the story with Sophie Cookson coming in to play the younger Joan Stanley.

02_Stills_EspíaRoja©Vertice360_Photo Nick Wall
Red Joan (IFC Films)

I enjoyed this approach to telling the story but felt the balance could have been better. I loved what Cookson did in this role and I think she was able to carry the film when called on to do so. However, I did want to see more from Dench. I felt she could have developed more of the story on her own through dialogue to capture more of her present-day emotional mindset. Had she been given more screen-time to do so. What Dench was able to accomplish with a small amount of time in this story was awesome in my opinion. Which for me naturally raised the curiosity of how much more of an emotional impact Dench could have left on this film with more time. I was very much able to connect to the younger version of Stanley’s character through Cookson’s performance. But shockingly I didn’t as much with Dench as the current-day Stanley, primarily because she felt forgotten at times. Something that was honestly disappointing.

As for Cookson I thought she was excellent overall. She showcased a ton of emotional range and most important a full arc of growth throughout the story. Early on she seems innocent and naive as she immediately becomes enamored by Leo the free-spirited communist. But as the story progresses her intelligence and free-will come more to the surface as her confidence grows. She has her own reasoning which may not make you agree with her decisions, but at least does capture why she felt it was something that needed to be done and something that was worth the risks. Stanley was a smart woman, and she understood the ramifications of everything. It wasn’t simply blind-love and manipulation, and this was what compelled me to want to learn more about her throughout the movie.

Red Joan (IFC Films)

The rest of the performances were more than capable. I enjoyed Stephen Campbell Moore as the Scientist that sees the potential in Joan Stanley. The evolution of their chemistry with one another was very natural and for me possibly the lasting impression this film will have because I very much enjoyed their scenes together. Tom Hughes as Leo the communist supporter who tries to string information from Joan was somewhat of a miss for me. I get where he was going with the character but honestly it felt a little over intense and forced at times. It was a serviceable performance but one I felt I had seen before. It was only in flashes though as he also has some effective scenes when the written material would allow.

The production-design was more than capable and captured the time-period effectively. This made the flashbacks truly feel like going back in time which I enjoyed. But story-line did feel like it was forced into a template. It was sort of by-the-numbers and lacking some energy that could make it stand out from the many other films in the genre that also look and progress the same. It was a good movie. It was certainly interesting in sections. Yet nothing about it felt lasting and I think it’s because Dench wasn’t able to punch this film with her imprint like she could have with some extended scenes and another page of dialogue.


GRADE: 70%