Red Joan

Certificate 12A

(2018) 101 mins

Director: Trevor Nunn
Writers: Lindsay Shapero, from the novel by Jennie Rooney
Cinematography: Zac Nicholson
Production Design: Cristina Casali
Music: George Fenton


In a picturesque village in England, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), lives in contented retirement. Then suddenly her tranquil existence is shattered as she’s shockingly arrested by MI5. For Joan has been hiding an incredible past; she is one of the most influential spies in living history…  Cambridge University in the 1930s, and the young Joan (Sophie Cookson), a demure physics student, falls intensely in love with a seductively attractive Russian saboteur, Leo (Tom Hughes). Through him, she begins to see that the world is on a knife-edge and perhaps must be saved from itself in the race to military supremacy. Post-war and now working at a top secret nuclear research facility, Joan is confronted with the impossible: Would you betray your country and your loved ones, if it meant saving them? What price would you pay for peace? Inspired by an extraordinary true story, Red Joan is the taut and emotional discovery of one woman’s sacrifice in the face of incredible circumstances.  Rotten Tomatoes

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Inspired by a true story, they say, and inspired is the right word to describe the screenplay, a clear, intelligent, unsentimental unpacking of a fascinating and complex real life drama. Character and the accident of history fuse into a complicated time-bomb. The most compelling aspect and the most satisfying for the audience, is the dislocation between what Joan (Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench) did and why she did it. You have to discover that towards the end. . .  Red Joan is a film for grown ups with an appreciation of cinema and an openness to explore human nature in all sorts of compromising circumstances.”  Urban Cinefile

Admittedly, the expected attributes of a slick espionage thriller (like globe-trotting mystique and heart-pumping moments of suspense) aren’t great in number here. Instead, Nunn’s film works better as a period melodrama and I don’t mean this as a slight at all. Unapologetically feminine in the vein of Lone Scherfig’s overlooked gem Their Finest, Red Joan resolves into a genuine study of an intelligent and ideologically budding young woman. As the old Joan settles into an interrogation session in a drab room (and repeatedly denies every accusation), the film’s lengthy flashbacks chart Joan’s opinionated past in thoughtful increments. Nunn swiftly takes us back in time to 1938, when Joan (a gracefully convincing Sophie Cookson) was a green but genius physics student at Cambridge, grabbing onto new inspirations and expanding her political horizon while growing into her sexuality.  Roger Ebert

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