Imagine being woken up in your quiet, suburban life by the sound of the British Secret Service there to arrest you for treason. Such is the logline for “Red Joan,” based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney. Our lead, Joan (Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson) finds herself charged with disclosing classified information around the atomic bomb during WW2 to the Soviet government over the course of multiple decades. Spanning from 1937 – 2000, the film features a bit of everything. There’s nuclear science, World War II, multiple romances and Judi Dench in police custody. Everything is inspired by a true story. So how does the movie fall so flat?
The trailer and promotional materials sell “Red Joan” primarily on Judi Dench’s performance in the titular role. At first glance, it looks like the film employs a similar structure to last year’s “The Wife,” which earned Glenn Close an Oscar nomination. That film bounced between the present day drama, with a grand dame actress front and center, and the past for context. “Red Joan” flips the script on this. Dench appears sporadically in the narrative. Instead, we spend much more time with Sophie Cookson as the younger Joan. With this choice, the movie doubles down on its weakest elements. The WW2 segments plays like CW’s interpretation of “The Imitation Game.” A large cast of fresh, young actors (who all look virtually the same) blandly take us through a tale of espionage, nuclear warfare and college romance. The most impressive feat this cast accomplishes is never registering a pulse.
Joan (Cookson) enrolls at Cambridge in 1937 and quickly excels in physics. However, her skill in this field is tampered by the sexism prevalent in the science community at the time. When Joan’s not busy banging up against the glass ceiling, she’s catching the attention of a young Russian political radical, Leo (Tom Hughes). As she gets woke to the ideals of Communism, Joan learns of some devastating projects in her work as a scientist. Her professional, personal and political lives all collide during World War II when Joan learns details of the atom bomb. Her desire to make the world a better place causes her to leak information to the Russians in the hopes that neither country destroys the world with this power.
I wish I could report the film picks up when we return to the early millennium with Judi Dench. However, not even Judi Dench can save this clunker of a story. Sure, Dench digs in to each of her big monologues with the tenacity and specificity that we’ve grown accustomed to. Still, it’s too little too late. Every scene involves Dench defending her past actions to the British agents or to her fuddy duddy lawyer son (Ben Miles). There’s little variety to these scenes. These flash forwards should be the highlights of the movie. Instead, they bog down a movie that already seems weighed down by its own self seriousness.
The movie fails to thread the needle between young and old Joan. This represents the chief problem with the movie. Young Joan enters as a woman interested in natural science who begins school late and wants to change the world. The decisions she makes regarding the atomic bomb all stems from her ethics and values. Yet, the movie never fully challenges or defines why Joan believes what she does. Then, when we jump in time to older Joan, the film only defines as a mother and suburban old lady. The movie never fills in what has happened between the decades of the two timelines. In fact, the two share nothing more than the same first name.
The basic premise of “Red Joan” works well for our current times. We should have a story out that revolves around a young STEM woman from the 40s. Her expertise in a male-dominated field during the war was the source of much conflict and forced her to make some hard decisions. The woman the writers based the character of Joan on deserves better than this handsomely made, yet stiff and inert drama. The real treason committed was against her life rights and memory.