“Red Joan” contains an intriguing story, and it’s hard to complain about the presence of Judi Dench. But this drama about an 80ish British widow accused of treason falls short as both an espionage thriller and a character study due to a lack of passion and depth.
Theater notable Trevor Nunn directed the movie (which opens Friday at the Embarcadero) from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero. It is adapted from Jennie Rooney’s novel, which was inspired by the real-life case of “granny spy” Melita Norwood.
In 2000, Joan Stanley, played by Dench in old age and by Sophie Cookson when young, is a retired librarian with a house in suburban London and a son (Ben Miles) she’s kept secrets from. She is arrested on charges of providing classified scientific information to the Soviets.
The drama shifts back and forth between elderly Joan in the interrogation room and young Joan in the 1930s and 1940s, when Hitler was wreaking horror and Stalin was considered a good guy.
Young Joan is a naive Cambridge physics freshman who becomes friends with worldly student Sonya (Tereza Sbrova). Through Sonya, Joan meets Leo (Tom Hughes), a fiery communist whose dashing appearance appeals to her more than his politics. Joan and Leo become romantically involved.
During the war, Joan works at the Tube Alloys project, Britain’s top-secret operation tasked with determining whether the country should build an atom bomb.
Joan and her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) become drawn to each other.
When the United States bombs Hiroshima, Joan is horrified at the human toll. She responds by supplying bomb-related classified material to the USSR via Leo and Sonja. “Nobody would suspect us — we’re women,” Sonja tells her.
Cookson, whose screen time exceeds Dench’s, impresses and is believable as the young Joan.
Material capturing the tone of the times — the idealistic fervor pervading political meetings, scientists discussing what the advent of the atom bomb could mean — is also noteworthy.
But, overall, the drama falls irremediably flat, suffering from an absence of well-developed characters. Joan’s motives often are unclear or lack credibility. Unlike Melita Norwood, who was driven by communist ideals, the fictional Joan supplies an audience-friendlier explanation for her spying. It involves peace, she says, and that’s hard to buy.
Romantically, the story gets soggy. Why Joan continues to feel so deeply about the aloof, manipulative Leo remains a mystery.
The movie could also use more suspense. We don’t feel the urgency of Joan’s risky missions.
Dench, as you’d expect, shines as the older Joan, but serves largely as a device to disclose details about the younger Joan during the interrogations.
Had the filmmakers revealed how her long-ago choices have affected her life and sense of self over the decades, Joan might have been a fascinating heroine. Instead, she’s one of this movie’s many missed opportunities.
Starring: Sophie Cookson, Judi Dench, Tom Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore
Written by: Lindsay Shapero
Directed by: Trevor Nunn
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes