Red Joan is based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a British housewife who was unmasked in her 80s as a KGB spy who leaked to the Russians vital information about Britain’s atomic bomb.

With the great Judi Dench as the elderly Joan Stanley, the film should have been a winner.

Sadly, Dench’s role in the film is relatively minor – the main action is told in flashbacks, with Sophie Cookson playing the young Joan, with little of the tension you would expect of a first-rate spy thriller.

In 1938 Joan is a bright young physics student at Cambridge, where she falls under the spell of the campus Communists, the exotic Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her “cousin” Leo (Tom Hughes), who becomes Joan’s lover.

But when Joan is hired as a research assistant with the Tube Alloys Project – a secret unit working on the atomic bomb, she reacts angrily when Leo tries to get her to talk about her work.

She moves on to have an affair with her boss, the gentlemanly professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), who is unhappily married but whose wife refuses to give him a divorce.

Director Trevor Nunn, with cinematographer Zac Nicholson and set designer Charlotte Walter, presents a convincing picture of life in wartime Britain, not only with authentic costumes and sets but also by touching on the sexist attitudes of the day.

Though Joan is a valued member of the research team, she is never introduced as an equal – outsiders simply assume she is a dogsbody who makes the tea.

In the end Joan decides to betray Britain’s atomic secrets to the Russians after seeing the catastrophic effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When the British Secret Service finally catches up with the elderly Joan she denies that she was ever a traitor.

“I love my country,” she protests. She had persuaded herself that the only way to prevent a future nuclear war was to ensure that both sides had access to the bomb. 

Dench is compelling as the bewildered and indignant elderly housewife confronted by police in her suburban home with the news that she is to be charged with treason.

Her barrister son (Ben Miles) is at first incredulous and then furious that his mother could have betrayed her country.

Screenwriter Lindsay Shapiro based his script on Jennie Rooney’s novel, Red Joan, inspired by Melita Norwood’s story.

She was a lifelong member of the Communist Party and started passing data to the KGB in 1937, soon after she became a secretary at the secret Tube Alloys Project.

She continued to spy for the Russians until she retired in 1972. But amazingly she was not unmasked until she was 87, when the British decided she was too old to be worth prosecuting. 

Red Joan opens on Thursday, 6 June, at Luna Leederville, Luna On SX and the Windsor Cinema. There will be advance screenings from Friday, 31 May, to Monday, 3 June.

We have six double passes to give away to Starfish readers in WA: just email us at info@thestarfish.com.au with your name. For an extra chance to win, like or share this post. Good luck!

Watch the trailer…

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