Lethally Dull: Our Review Of ‘Red Joan’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - May 03, 2019
Lethally Dull: Our Review Of ‘Red Joan’

Melita Norwood aka “The Granny Spy,” was a former British civil servant who shared classified secrets with the Soviets throughout her career. By the time this information became public knowledge Norwood was well into retirement and authorities didn’t prosecute her. Old people! Am I right? Trevor Nunn’s “sort of” bio-pic Red Joan is based on Norwood’s life and career. Lindsay Shapero’s script takes plenty of liberties with the material and casts Judi Dench in the “sort of” title role.

The story begins in the early 2000s with innocent-looking senior Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) enjoying quiet time in her garden. Soon enough the authorities show up and drag her in for questioning. The film flashes back to Joan’s younger days (played by Sophie Cookson) in Cambridge. Joan, an impressionable young woman, crosses paths with Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a mysterious woman who literally shows up by climbing through her window. The two hit it off, and before long Joan is pulled into the world of Communist politics. Joan falls for Sonya’s cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), an intense young activist with revolutionary ideas. He’s the love of her life but it doesn’t work out and they go their separate ways.

But Leo resurfaces years later. And his return aligns with Joan landing a job working on the country’s most top-secret project: an atomic bomb. After the Americans drop a pair of bombs on Japan, Joan decides that an atomic weapon is too much power for one country to command. In order to protect the world from an apocalypse, Joan begins covertly sharing her government’s secrets with the KGB.

Red Joan is everything you expect a Dame Judi Dench movie to be — even if it barely features Judi Dench. It’s a well-polished period drama to the point of caricature. If SNL produced a stuffy British film parody, it would look indistinguishable from Red Joan. So, if you love this genre of film, you’ll feel right in your element.

Sophie Cookson stars in Red Joan

This movie looks and sounds fantastic. George Fenton’s dreamy score elevates DP Zac Nicholson’s decadent visuals. Everything comes together in a manner that gives each scene weight, even as the story meanders.

Shout out to Charlotte Walter’s top-notch costume design. Walter goes to Mad Men-esque lengths to properly romanticize the era. I was struck by how the film’s rich colour palette flowed between the costumes and production design. This is a story about spies; particularly women who go unnoticed. And Joan’s clothing often blended into her environment, giving her a chameleon-like quality.

Dench really doesn’t have much to do in her minimal screen time, and she delivers a wistful performance as elder Joan. Cookson turns in a strong performance as young Joan, but she’s let down by a dull script and the film’s sluggish pacing.

Red Joan looks the part of a prestige picture, but it’s actually a hollow mimic that lacks soul.

  • Release Date: 5/03/2019
This post was written by
Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).
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