Released: 6th June
Seen:22nd May (Advance Screening)
Do you know what’s the hardest part of these reviews to write? This opening paragraph that is always placed above a cut so when you look on the main page you get this little paragraph that provides a little bit of context, either context for the series the movie is part of or maybe a personal story so you can understand where I’m coming from when I talk about a certain film. The idea behind this format is that if you were to scroll through and read the opening paragraph, it might catch your eye and make you read it. It provides a jumping off point, like an introduction to an essay and they’re insanely hard to write because it requires me to find a way to hint at my feelings about the film without going into detail. It’s a taste-test that I offer you to get you to read on and when a movie is great they can be a lot of fun to write and when a movie is awful, they’re even more fun to write. But what about when a film is so middle of the road and so pointless that not only do I not have anything interesting to say about its inception, but its lack of purpose makes me spend a two-hour train ride pondering “Just how the hell am I going to talk about this?”. Well, Red Joan is here to test just how much I can get out of one of the most boring films I’ve seen in a while… which is weird to say about a film with Russian spies stealing nuclear secrets but that’s what we have.
Red Joan, based on a book that was inspired by a real woman called Melita Norwood, follows the story of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench). Joan is an 80-year-old woman who is happy just living her life in a little town in England until there’s a knock on the door and the police are there to arrest Joan and question her about her youth. We flashback to the 1930s where we meet a younger Joan (Sophie Cookson) who ends up becoming friends with a woman named Sonya (Tereza Srbova) who randomly climbs in her window one night. Sonya takes Joan along to a communist film screening on campus where Joan meets Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew who escaped the Nazi’s and now wants to help Stalin out because he likes communism a lot… like, Leo basically wants to have sex with the concept of communism, he’s that into it. He literally called Joan “My Little Comrade” multiple times… oh crap, the plot. Anyway, we slowly follow young Joan as she takes a job with the government and helps them to create a nuclear weapon (Occasionally cutting back to Judi Dench to remind you that she is actually in this film) and after some convincing from Leo and Sonya, Joan copies the plans to give to the Russians which therefore invents the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction… and also the Cold War but hey, at least you tried Joan.
When the film begins, there is some genuine good to be found because it focuses on the Judi Dench performance. Judi Dench is one of those actors who is incapable of putting in a bad performance, remember that this is a woman who won an Oscar for 6 minutes of screen time and has turned in so many good performances that it’d be more interesting if her performance in this film was awful… but it’s not, she’s firing on all cylinders here and delivering a sweet charming performance that makes you love her. Such a pity she’s barely used. Half her performance is reaction shots that they cut in to remind you that most of the film is a flashback. If you watch the trailer, congrats on seeing pretty much every Judi Dench scene that’s in the movie. This isn’t to throw shade on the actress playing the young Joan, she’s perfectly fine and does the job that’s asked of her but they do not use Judi Dench well at all. They certainly don’t use the flashback idea properly, it’s borderline farcical how bad the transitions are. A cop asks Old Joan a question; she looks off into the middle distance while the cop says “Joan? JOAN?” and boom, 1938 time. This exact exchange happens multiple times and it never stops being jarring.
What’s also horribly jarring is how everyone who isn’t an Oscar Winning icon of British Cinema is either phoning in their performances or chewing scenery like it’s nothing else. This can lead to some fun over the top performances, particularly with the Sonya character who feels like she’s from a different (and more interesting) movie that we’ll never get to see. For the most part, everyone’s just kind of there… which makes the multiple romances of the film fall flat because not only do I not believe that these characters would fall in love, I barely believe that they’ve met. There’s an entire plotline where Joan and her boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore) fall in love but I’ll be damned if I could tell you when or why or how I’m meant to feel about it. It’s there because this is a drama where there’s a woman in the lead, therefore she needs to have moments of doubt between two men who are pulling her in different directions. We’re meant to want her to choose Max and avoid the bad boy Leo who just keeps pulling her into more evil espionage and gaslighting her but… I don’t care, I just don’t. The actors have so little chemistry that it cannot be suitably described by a comedic simile.
What brings this movie down most is that there is no real urgency, there’s no tension. Keep in mind that this is a movie about a British woman becoming a Russian spy, stealing the secrets of how to create a nuclear bomb and giving those secrets to the Russians shortly after WW2… and it’s boring. There is no real worry that Joan’s going to get caught, there’s no real moment where we’re meant to realise that she’s been conned, and she doesn’t even seem to notice that this is dangerous. It’s a movie about spying and the ‘spying’ boils down to getting the nice secretary to take some photos of blueprints and hand them over when no one’s looking. Not to bang on about Melita Norwood again, but she was one of the most valued KGB spies so I think it’s safe to say you could get some dramatic tension out of the things she did but there’s none here. There are maybe three laugh lines in the entire movie but there’s never a moment where you worry that Joan’s going to get caught or she’s on the verge of a breakdown or… anything, there is no tension of any kind to be found in this film and I actively searched for some.
Red Joan is a film that relies on the talent of its biggest name, while also giving her nothing to do. It tells the story of an actual person who was fascinating and makes her mundane. It’s a film about one of the tensest times during the 20th Century that tells that story without any tension at all. A film with spies, communism, nuclear war and sex should not be boring. The combination of those ideas should not create a boring film when put together, just by virtue of the fact that every single one of those things is darkly fascinating… but here? Here they’re dull, they’re lifeless, they have nothing fascinating or even mildly interesting about them. Red Joan is a film that exists, nothing more.