Red Joan stars Judi Dench as its titular former Soviet spy, in a film inspired by the case of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who was revealed to have provided nuclear secrets to the Soviets, unmasked when she was well into her eighties. Dame Judi’s scenes as the elderly Joan bookend flashbacks starring Sophie Cookson as Young Joan, as she gets drawn into socialist circles at Cambridge in the 1930s.
Young Joan’s world of romance, wartime organizing, and intrigue is a lot more interesting than Old Joan’s world of disapproving officials and interrogation rooms, though Old Joan is a more intriguing psychological conundrum. It’s an interesting case and a fascinating setting, but when Red Joan blurs and composites real-life spy cases, it seems less a way to explore some aspect of the human condition than a shortcut for narrative expediency. It’s entertaining enough, but it never quite answers the question why tell this story, and why fictionalize it?
Young Joan is a natural sciences major at Cambridge — blurring Norwood’s story (she was a Latin and Logic major at Southampton before dropping out) with that of the Cambridge Five, while adding in the girls-pursuing-STEM-professions character trend, as seen in Dumbo and others. Young Joan (distractingly played by an actress with different colored eyes than Judi Dench) first meets fast party girl Sophie (Tereza Srbova), who in turn introduces her to her cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), an active campus socialist organizer, along with their acolyte, a gay viscount with an Indian lover.
The film does a decent job contrasting skeptical Socialist humanist Joan with her true believing, Stalin apologist friends (tankies, in modern parlance) Sophie and Leo, the latter a perfect fuckboi in the Timotheé Chalamet-in-Lady Bird mode. The trouble is, Joan’s ideology is all mixed up with her love life.