In Brief: Based on a true story means it’s just based and not totally true. Decent performances are all that helps this one.
Red Joan is based on a true story. It is set in the late 1940s and stars Judi Dench. She’s Joan. So is Sophie Cookson of the James Bond-spoof Kingsmen films. Dench is the older Joan when she finally gets arrested for her crimes.
Cookson is the younger Joan recruited by the devious commies and commits the crimes.
Crimes? Yes, I guess I need to explain. It’s about communism, the bomb and who has it and who doesn’t, and how to get it if you don’t. Or something like that.
In this case — and again, remember it’s the late 1940s — the communists in the USSR want the bomb. At first this highly fictionalized “true story” has poor Joan not quite buying the communist party line. Real life says she did but in the movie Joan is wooed by logic that says if we — meaning the USSR — don’t have parity with nuclear weapons then another world war will be the result. But that’s later. At first it is nothing so noble.
Nope. Not even close.
Pheromones are the reason. She’s totally smitten with Leo. He’s done by Tom Hughes of the British TV series Victoria. Leo is hot, smart and a totally dedicated communist who pushes and pulls at the poor woman’s heartstrings. Her story is much more interesting than the later-in-life Joan who gets caught.
The acting is good and the supporting players are all competent. Some — like Hughes — are even interesting but the film is really owned by Cookson. Her Joan works on every level. She has nuclear secrets — which is why the communists recruit her and is constantly at odds with herself. Should she do the right thing or — well — do the right thing?
Love — or is it lust? — gets in the way of things, too.
Cookson’s performance bounces all over the place. She’s up. Then down. Then quiet. Then sneaky. And then it starts all over again. It’s a decent piece of work in a movie that has almost nowhere to go.
Dench plays Joan like a befuddled old lady. She puts Joan in some sort of a pity party and instead of being wowed you’ll find the performance pitiable. But it’s Dench and even when she’s pathetic she’s better than 90% of the actresses working today.
She just isn’t better than Cookson who manages to sell the concept in spite of director Trevor Nunn (1996’s Lady Jane and TV stuff like Oklahoma, King Lear) and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero (nothing you’ve likely heard of) who don’t have the moviemaking or movie writing skills to connect the two ladies and make them one person.
It’s the film’s fatal flaw.
By the way, in real life the woman’s name — in the “based” on a true story — isn’t Joan. Her name was Melita Norwood. And Melita worked for a top-secret firm that helped develop Great Britain’s atomic bomb. She was recruited by the KGB and passed many of Britain’s secrets onto the USSR.
In real life she was a communist.
Director: Trevor Nunn
Stars: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova, Nina Sosanya, Robin Soans, Laurence Spellman, Kevin Fuller
Red Joan isn’t a bad film. Take the Judi Dench stuff mixed throughout the movie and just do it start to finish and it’s a much better movie. That’s the negative. The positive, it’s not very long. Give it a Friday Flicks with Gary 2 1/2 out of 5.
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Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.