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
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.”