Red Joan, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson, is inspired by a real-life, very British wartime spy story exposed 50 years on.
Secrets, Secretsby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Director Trevor Nunn’s return to film in Red Joan sees his frequent collaborator Judi Dench star as octogenarian Joan Stanley, arrested for passing intelligence to Russia during World War II. Flashbacks reveal the younger Joan (Sophie Cookson) embroiled in circles of influence and intrigue in the early 1940s in this adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s 2014 novel.
Elderly Joan (Dench) is first seen quietly working away in her front garden. Her suburban normality is shattered by the arrival of the police who arrest her for breaching the official secrets act. Shocked, Joan is taken in for questioning and grilled about her days as a student at Cambridge and allegations of consorting with communists.
We then see a young Joan (Cookson), wide-eyed and bookish, as she adapts to life at Cambridge in 1938. She is soon contrasted with the glamorous and confident Sonya (Tereza Srbova), who arrives through Joan’s window in need to rescuing after a night out.
Joan is captivated by Sonya and soon is introduced to her politically active and communist friends. Her head is turned by new experiences and ideas, particularly by Sonya’s handsome and charismatic cousin Leo (Tom Hughes, making use of his Germanic accent as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria), the ringleader and spokesman.
Scenes of the older Joan being persistently questioned by the authorities are intercut with her falling under Leo’s spell, experiencing first love and burgeoning passion some sixty years earlier.
Joan’s connection with Leo and Sonya continues after Cambridge into wartime as she is recruited to assist on a top secret project under the leadership of Professor Max Davies (Stephen Campbell Moore). Very soon she has access to highly confidential information and is under pressure from Leo to share this with Russia.
Whilst not a nerve-shredding thriller, there are genuinely tense sequences; a scene where a quick-thinking Joan employs a cunning decoy under pressure quickens the pulse.
In the modernday scenes there is a highly watchable dynamic between Joan and son Nick (Ben Miles) when Nick’s resolve and loyalty are tested as unknown truths about his mother are revealed.
Naturally Dench’s presence adds gravitas to proceedings. The Oscar-winner delivers a typically sterling performance, gradually unveiling subtle layers to Joan as we learn the truth of her actions.
However, Dench is granted limited screen time, frequently she gives a thoughtful look in the interview and we are whisked back to the past where Cookson does the heavy lifting.
Cookson, best known for Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and its 2017 sequel, does wonderful work displaying Joan’s journey from a nervous, inexperienced girl to a capable figure of some power and the turmoil and conflict she encounters on the way.
Red Joan comfortably takes its place alongside other recent British wartime dramas Their Finest (2016), Another Mother’s Son (2017) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018).