Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson
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The film as a whole does have a fascinating story to tell and with this cast (especially Dench, of course) it is brought to the screen with considerable aplomb.
If you think about it, the most successful spies are the ones we have never heard of. British director Trevor Nunn has brought to the screen the rather extraordinary tale of Joan Stanley – here styled as ‘Red Joan’ – who leaked nuclear secrets to the Russians for decades. (The real-life Joan was arrested very late in her life). This isn’t really a spoiler because Nunn shows us from the very beginning the end-point arrest and interrogation.
Joan (the ever-splendid Dame Judi Dench) is by then a little old lady pottering around her cottage garden. No one would have guessed the passionate and dangerous life she led in the 1940s. She gives the impression that she barely remembers it too. But then maybe that suits her.
The film uses the device of intercutting between the current day interrogation and her war-time exploits. The period-set sections, which occupy the majority of the running time, are as much concerned with Joan’s love life as her spying.
The young Joan is played with great verve by Sophie Cookson (perhaps best known for a rather different take on secret service work in the Kingsman films). She steals the hearts of men as well as the secrets of the state. Concentrating upon the affairs and the sexual games could be seen as trivialising the historical and espionage elements, but here they are convincingly intertwined. The characters’ motivations are constantly made more complex by their attachments and jealousies.
Nunn belongs to that generation of British theatre directors (like David Hare and Peter Hall) who are left-leaning and drawn to political and historical subjects, but he shows he can handle cinema just as well. The problem, as suggested, is to balance the ideological issues at play with the human story. Perhaps on the stage one could attempt a more wordy and sombre philosophical debate about the niceties of politics and the complexities of deciding what the ‘right’ side’ actually was. As Joan says, “it was all so different then”. However, there is also the hard-to-square idea that, by providing nuclear secrets to Stalin’s Russia, Joan aided the uneasy post war nuke-laden peace based on ‘mutually assured destruction’.
That is one of the sticking points of the film. Joan has a grown-up son (Ben Miles) who has an establishment job. It is not just that he is shocked by the belated revelation that he never really knew his mum, there is also the problem that he thoroughly disapproves of her treasonous acts. The arguments between the two are perhaps a little too condensed so that the dialogue in their scenes becomes unrealistically position-setting and even a bit unconvincing.
It is a small flaw though. The film as a whole does have a fascinating story to tell and with this cast (especially Dench, of course) it is brought to the screen with considerable aplomb.