‘Red Joan’ Review: Not Enough Drama, or Enough Judi Dench, in British Spy Story

Director Trevor Nunn finds no passion, intrigue or motivation in this based-on-a-true-story tale of espionage

Last Updated: April 18, 2019 @ 6:31 PM

Our first shot of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) in “Red Joan” is inauspicious enough. A librarian in a cozy cardigan, she’s pruning roses outside her small, neatly kept row house in a London suburb. But then there’s a knock at the door. And a charge of treason.

Unfortunately, director Trevor Nunn can’t match the rest of the film to this intriguing open, in part because he loses Dench for so much it.

Nunn — who usually focuses on the stage, alternating between Shakespearean adaptations and splashy productions like “Cats” and “Les Misérables” — does know how to craft a good-looking movie. He just doesn’t seem motivated to make a particularly challenging one. There’s a sense of missed opportunity hovering around the edges of this curious story, which ought to be tense and complex but rarely is.

While sitting in the police station, trying to defend herself from choices made decades ago, Joan flashes back to those years. As a brilliant but sheltered young science student at Cambridge in 1938, young Joan (Sophie Cookson, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) falls in with a young group of Russian dissidents. The glamorous Sonya (Tereza Srbova, “Strike Back”) introduces her to moody Leo (Tom Hughes, “Victoria”), with whom she begins a years-long affair. But he’s hard to pin down, and seems to turn up only when he needs something.

It’s not long before Joan can provide it. After graduation, she gets a job working on a top-secret atomic project. Naturally, this is info Leo would love to pass on to his higher-ups. Joan, despite her loyalties to her boss, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), and regularly proclaimed affection for her own country, is happy to help.

Why? Who knows? Not Joan, it seems, whose weak justifications never provide a believable explanation for the enormity of her ongoing actions. And not Nunn, who is unable to spark any passion despite so much potential.

Dench’s appearances are brief and underutilized, which makes it more noticeable that the supporting actors are generally either miscast or misdirected. Srbova chews scenery like a silent-movie star who believes this will be her last best chance to be discovered. Moore’s role is designed to be unmemorable and is played as such, and Hughes never finds Leo’s core essence (or accent).

Cookson is very good, but she’s too often left to perform in a vacuum. Lindsay Shapero’s script — based on Jennie Rooney’s novel — neglects to build in the tension Cookson clearly aims to generate. The older Joan’s Che Guevara mug serves as a typically lazy substitute for character development; too much is quickly suggested rather than deeply explored. And crucially, Leo is so detached, Sonya is so narcissistic, and Max is so milquetoast that we can’t understand why Joan would ever risk so much for those who give her so little.

On the other hand, Nunn seems to have made the movie expressly for those who prefer nostalgic prestige without any edges. And in that regard, he’s done very well. There’s a hazy, golden glow around the whole film that makes it easy watching. Composer George Fenton’s swelling score swoops us into every big moment. And who doesn’t like to see attractive people in period costumes ordering crumpets in charming tea shops or flirting by the side of an Oxbridge river?

Nunn starts and ends the movie by noting that it was inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, the KGB source known to British tabloids as the “granny spy.” By the time the film was finished, I felt ready to move on from these characters. But I was definitely ready to learn more about Norwood.