Quarantine Cinema film review: Red Joan

With our coronavirus quarantine threatening to become even more intense over the next two weeks, the need for quality entertainment becomes even more pressing. Our next entry in the occasional Quarantine Film/TV Festival offers us a well-made, entertaining, but ultimately frustrating Cold War narrative from last year, Red Joan. Inspired by a true story of a spy within the British atomic weapons research program of World War II, the dual-time-track film fails to learn its own lessons:

Mild spoilers follow.

Red Joan reimagines the story of Melita Norwood, one of the most successful of the Soviet moles in the UK — so successful that her espionage didn’t come to light until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had long suspected Norwood of sympathy toward the Soviets, but only discovered her work as a NKVD and then KGB mole only after the defection of Vasili Mitrokhin in 1992. The British authorities declined to press charges at that late date due to Norwood’s age, but she defended herself as an agent of peace when her role came to light.

In this film, Joan Stanley’s story unfolds in two time tracks — more or less present day, after MI-5 discovers her role in helping Stalin to get an atomic bomb, and from 1938-1945. The role gets split between Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson as the younger Joan. Dench starts off with denials but eventually we see her recruitment via a passionate love affair with Leo (Tom Hughes), an odd friendship with his cousin Sonya (Tereza Srbova), and the other friends she makes at Cambridge, especially William, who will go on to high public office.

It’s a first-class production of a costume drama, with plenty of good performances all around. Dench starts off looking confused over the allegations, but then starts building her defenses as she realizes the jig is up. Hughes and Srbova are particularly good as the murky Russian/German emigres for whom politics and socializing go hand in hand. Cookson in particular shines as a passionate but somewhat gullible young idealist who never seems to question her own assumptions.

And this is where the frustration sets in, because neither Joan nor the filmmakers spot this flaw, which is glaringly obvious from everything that follows. Time after time Joan gets duped, and time after time neither she nor the film learn from it. In the end, Red Joan wants to sell us on the idea that she was a patriot for peace rather than a patsy for the Soviets. By the time the earlier time frame wraps up, not only will the audience want to slap the younger Joan across the face and scream, “WAKE UP!”, they will note that she gets corrupted by the process and employs some of the same tactics on her friends that got used by her exploiters. And yet, it’s very clear that the filmmakers see Joan as that patriot for peace and let her off the hook for everything else that unfolds in the film.

It’s well done and entertaining for the most part, though. Pass on the rental fee, but if it comes up on your streaming service without a charge, it’s worth a look. Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Red Joan gets a 2:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Red Joan is rated R for sexual situations and some brief nudity, as well as a bit of language. If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because this only made a brief appearance in American theaters last year, grossing only $1.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It didn’t do all that much better in the UK, where it only took in $3.4 million, but ironically only scored $132,000 in Russia, where one would expect it to have been a bit more popular.