24 Apr 2019

Review - Red Joan

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 24 April 2019

How many films can you remember whose titles start with the word red?

Recently the was the Jennifer Lawrence secret agent thriller Red Sparrow, Andrea Arnold's superb debut film in 2006 was called Red Road. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift starred in Red River back in 1948 - that's a classic. Antonioni’s Red Desert was an early arthouse favourite in 1964, Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen fought off the USSR in Red Dawn, and a year later in 1985, Brigitte Nielsen took on Arnold Schwarzenegger in the sword and sandals epic Red Sonja.

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Photo: Lionsgate

Now, we have a new red to contend with and I'm sorry to report that it's not nearly as exciting as any of those others.

Red Joan is a rather pedestrian story about a retired British physicist played by the venerable Judi Dench, who was arrested for sending nuclear secrets to the Russians after the end of World War II.

Miss Dench doesn't have a huge amount to do in this film, despite what the poster might lead you to believe. And most of the heavy lifting, such as it is, is done by up-and-coming young English actress Sophie Cookson.

The film starts with Joan’s arrest and the first part of her interrogation. She doesn't need a lawyer she protests because she's done nothing wrong.

In flashback we meet Miss Cookson as the young Joan, a talented scientist studying at Cambridge in 1938. The storm clouds of Fascism are gathering over Europe, but she's more interested in physics.

One night, a beautiful emigre student named Sonya played by Tereza Srbova climbs in her bedroom window after a jolly night out.

The exciting and slightly exotic Sonya turns Joan’s head a little bit, and she soon going along with her to lefty events like watching Battleship Potemkin in respectful silence and being introduced to bright young things like future head of the Foreign Office. Sir William Mitchell, and handsome gentleman Jewish refugee Leo Galich, played by Prince Albert from the Victoria TV series, Tom Hughes.

World War II soon breaks out and the Russians start out on the side of the Nazis, which puts those European emigres on the left in the security spotlight.

Leo is arrested and interned, Sonya mysteriously disappears to Switzerland. Joan’s scientific talents as soon spotted by the government, and she's put to work on the British version of the Manhattan Project, trying to unlock the secrets of the atom so they can make a war-ending bomb.

There are actually some nicely observed bits in here as she goes from being a gifted secretary to the great men in the office, to being a significant contributor in her own right.

But then, on the boat to Canada to share research with the allies, she falls in love with her boss played by Stephen Campbell More and the story is reduced to being about the competing men in her life.

I did find all the blokes in this picture to be terribly wet. Maybe that's why I felt so unengaged with it.

I think my main concern about Red Joan is that if you're going to be inspired by a true story, as it says at the beginning, why not be inspired to do something a bit more exciting? You’re making most of it up anyway.

Screenwriter Lindsay Shapero has adapted the story from a real event and changed all the names, but left all the dullness in.

Director Trevor Nunn, who used to be artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so he knows a little bit about drama on stage, if not on screen, can't seem to mine any here.

My other beef with Red Joan, is something I alluded to earlier. It seems afraid of politics. Joan flirts with left wing causes at Cambridge, but for romantic reasons rather than ideological ones.

The Cambridge lefties are made to look like an easily-manipulated, upper class social club, singing the 'Red Flag' at the drop of a hat, but not really believing in anything other than that Fascism is bad.

She's dragged into espionage because of the men in her life and ultimately commits her treason, for want of a better word, because she believes in nuclear parity, not socialist idealism.

I just wish she'd believed in a little bit more to be honest. All that anybody in the film had.

Red Joan is rated M for some very inoffensive sex scenes and it's playing in selected cinemas all over New Zealand now.

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