“Red Joan”

 

            Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is an 80-something, living alone and tending her rose bushes on a quiet English street, when suddenly the Special Branch shows up to arrest her for spying.  In World War II.  (It's based on a true story, and in “real life” her name was Melita Norwood, but we'll play along here.)  As they bring her to the interrogation room to ask about her past, she naturally reminisces to those vivid times when she was a student at Cambridge.  And Director Trevor Nunn begins the first of many “flashback” scenes, featuring Sophie Cookson as the young Joan.

            Joan, a physics student, finds herself drawn to a group of activist students concerned about the Civil War in Spain.  They feel that with Fascism on the rise in Europe, only Communism is standing up to it, so Joan finds herself attending meetings where newsreels are shown.  Their leader, Leo (Tom Hughes) is quite a compelling speaker, and his cousin, Sonya (Tereza Srbova) quickly befriends Joan.  They are all nervously following the earth-shaking events on the Continent.  At first, when Russia and Germany sign a peace treaty while England is at war with Germany, their Communist sympathies are mostly underground.  But when Hitler invades Russia, and now England is allied with Russia against Germany, it makes sense to Joan to continue her ties with Leo and Sonya, even beginning a romance with Leo.  Meanwhile, Joan has taken a job working with her physics professor, who, it turns out, is secretly helping develop the atomic bomb.  The British know the Americans are working on it, as well, but feel that they have to do their own research, too, in order to help guarantee that the Allies will discover the technology before the Germans do.

            Joan, though often relegated to clerical duties, understands well enough the science that's being discussed.  She also sees clearly the ugly politics of excluding the Russians from the precious uranium information, because, well, just because they're Allies doesn't mean we trust them.  Joan has seen enough war in her young lifetime to be convinced that the only way one side would not use “the bomb” is if they knew the other side could use it against them, as well.  Mutual deterrence.  So, she tells herself, this is her rationale for passing on secrets to the Russians.  Joan feels that in her small way, she's contributing to world peace.  Though of course she knows that if she ever gets caught, the Brits won't see it that way at all.

            Director Nunn shows us enough of the life of the elderly Joan for us to know that she has a grown son, a barrister, and that eventually she did marry her old physics professor, but along with that revelation comes the inevitable inquiry of “What did he know and when did he know it?”  The script by Lindsay Shapero jumps around time sequences, but fleshes out the complicated motivations of the characters.

            In “real life,” Ms. Norwood claims that subsequent events proved her correct:  there has been a mutual deterrence, because of both sides possessing the nuclear technology.  The Brits decided not to prosecute her.  She died at age 93, still thinking of herself as someone who enabled a greater peace.  But the press dubbed her “Red Joan.”

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association