Joan (Judy Dench /Sophie Cookson) is arrested on suspicion of sharing state secrets to the USSR during the '40s, which carries a charge of treason. She recounts her story to the investigators at MI5 to explain how and why she did it.
Say what you want about Michael Bay, his films might be boring and stupid but at the least, you get the feeling he makes the films he wants to see. Sometimes you see a film that is so boring and stupid you have no literal idea who it could be for and as you can already tell, ‘Red Joan’ is one of these films.
There is not a lot to recommend here. Throughout there is an inescapable feeling that it should have been a made-for-TV film. And not one of these new flashy adaptions with Dominic West, the type your granny would fall asleep through after ‘Birds of a Feather’.
Joan’s tale is split over two time periods which is great because we can watch a boring World War II film and a boring noughties crime drama at the same time. It would have been a better idea to just focus on one time period and do it justice. Dench plays the titular character in her later years and does a spot on job of someone acting like their sciatica is flaring up again.
The younger Joan is not any more interesting. The character seems to have no thoughts or desires of her own and is constantly pinged between secondary characters as they tell her vaguely why they are right and why everyone else is wrong. She flips and flops her allegiance so easily and with so little persuasion I’m surprised by the end she doesn’t self identify as a bit of scenery.
So much of the plot and how the characters react make no sense whatsoever. She is meant to be a brilliant physicist with a sharp mind, instrumental in helping to build an atomic bomb and then is totally shocked when she finds out people intend to use it. When the bombs do fall on Japan this is what spurs her to leak information to the Ruskies. Her son and lawyer later denounce her shouting, “how could you betray your country?”. Maybe if you're the type to stand three hours in the rain to try and catch a glimpse of the queen, this could be a line that works, but for anyone outside of the Cotswolds, it’s extremely misjudged and farcical.
It very much tells and does not show, but also doesn't really tell you much either. There is no real reason to hate who you are meant to or why you are meant to root for the perceived baddies. The cinematic equivalent of a vague hand gesture with implicit jingoism. Early on the police accuse her of having socialist sympathies and she gasps as if it is something to be ashamed of, so at least it does a good job of signalling what the next couple of hours of drudgery are going to be like.
Sonya (Tereza Sbrova) is the most interesting character, played like a proper femme fatale, she adds much-needed colour to the story. But then halfway through just disappears and never turns up again. She is mentioned in one scene that resolves a plot point that was only introduced 10 minutes previous, leaving you to wonder why it was introduced at all. The script desperately needed to be honed and streamlined.
As a film, ‘Red Joan’ is a lot of work for no real reason and even forgoes a satisfactory conclusion. The only people I can imagine gleaming enjoyment from this are people that fetishise stuffy Englishmen smoking pipes but they’d be better off watching an Ealing comedy.