Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan is a reflective romantic drama with an engaging espionage twist. In the 1930s, young Joan Stanley (Sophie Cookson) finds herself torn between a sense of duty to humanity and her loyalty to England. A love affair with Leo (Tom Hughes) and friendship with Soviet students open her world up to new perspectives and possibilities. Decades later, her ambitious actions come into question.
Judi Dench mesmerizes viewers as a rattled, yet confident and mature Joan who claims accountability for her actions as a young, idealistic woman. What sets this spy story apart from others is the nuanced realism. Joan is not a soldier or a highly trained asset. She is an intelligent and respected physicist who finds herself in an advantageous position. After graduating from university, she becomes an integral member of England’s nuclear bomb-building team.
“A love affair with Leo and friendship with Soviet students open her world up to new perspectives and possibilities.”
Cookson brings integrity and vulnerability to Joan that echoes Dench’s performance. As nations rush to be the first to create a weapon of mass destruction, Joan agonizes over brutal fatalities. Although she’s just an assistant, her boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore) greatly values her opinions and expertise. It is rare to see a man stand up for a woman in the workplace, in any era.
Despite being labeled a traitor and scandalized by the media, “Red Joan” is an inspiration. She follows her heart while showcasing her brilliance. She becomes a communist sympathizer because she believes in a fair world. She shares British intelligence with Russia because she strives to even the playing field. If everyone has a nuclear bomb, then no one nation would dare use their own in fear of retaliation.
Lindsey Shapiro has captured an intriguing piece of hidden history, showcasing women’s strengths and the overlooked roles they played during the world’s most turbulent times of war. Joan boldly fights for her sense of justice and equality in an attempt to protect the world and save humanity. Empathy for everyone surpasses one’s duty to a country. It is fascinating to watch her unique story unfold and we marvel as she justifies her bold actions decades later – when she almost got away with it all.
Red Joan (2019) Directed by Trevor Nunn. Written by Lindsey Shapiro. Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ben Miles. Red Joan screened as part of the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
8 out of 10 stars