Red Joan is a love story, a political thriller, a woman’s coming-of-age sexual memoir, and a history of British espionage just before and after World War II. It is also a crock. Based on real-life KGB spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan’s sentimental exoneration of one woman’s treason and sedition fits with how today’s media pay tribute to the kaffeeklatsch of political resisters.
Judi Dench plays title character Joan Stanley as a kindly widow suddenly exposed by the British government for her activities, 60 years earlier, relaying wartime bomb secrets to Russia. Crone Joan’s mummified on-trial look (Dench’s facial wattles, a padded, thick rump, and flabby legs with an ankle monitor) dissolves into flashbacks played by pouty Sophie Cookson, who beams a girlish complexion and period hairdos as a student at Cambridge University. Cookson never locates her character’s sexual-political tension, which was the key to every characterization in the film version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, because that complexity isn’t part of this film’s reverential concept.
Young Joan is seduced by a pair of sexy Jewish radicals, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), who teaches her espionage tricks, and firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes), who talks of religion when he has politics in mind. Their exoticism, flaunting past political persecution, is meant to excuse WASP Joan’s uncritical fascination.
Asked, “Who politicized you then?” Old Joan’s response, “That’s a strange way to put it,” epitomizes the disingenuousness of red-diaper-baby filmmaking that dodges political intent and refuses to admit its Communist sympathies. This is where Red Joan stops being entertainment and becomes romanticized indoctrination. Leftist attitudes are dramatized as the norm.
Joan defends her romantic intrigues and professional deceptions that include blackmailing her Cambridge colleagues. She prevaricates: “I have also been accused of deceiving my country. I am not a spy. I’m not a traitor. I wanted everyone to share the same knowledge. Because only that way could the horror of another world war be averted and I think if you look back at history, you’ll see I was right.”
Such self-justification characterizes today’s progressive self-righteousness. Joan’s specious concern for issues (she’s a prototype for Britain’s Ban the Bomb movement) derails her sense of nationalism and, in the long run, derails morality itself. Red Joan’s plot resembles the 2010 Helen Mirren–Jessica Chastain film The Debt, which used sexy flashbacks to bolster modern-day historical revisionism about Cold War conflict.
For readers who think a film review overpoliticizes entertainment, this is how overly melodramatic political filmmaking turns rancid. In a perfect parallel to contemporary deep-state crises of espionage and subterfuge, Joan’s arrogance corresponds to the Barack Obama–Bernie Sanders promise to “fundamentally transform” a nation by any means necessary.
It’s impossible to watch Red Joan’s promiscuous genre-hopping as anything other than an exhibition of the mainstream media’s current subversive tendencies. Director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero may not be foreign agents themselves, but their Lifetime for Women saga makes light of Melita Norwood’s betrayal — her real-life treachery was connected to the Cambridge Five spy ring of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. These political figures have always received sentimental treatment by film and TV makers in films such as Another Country and An Englishman Abroad, to which Red Joan adds Me Too pique: When the Prime Minister mistakes Joan as a laboratory go-fer, he is corrected, “She’s a first class Cambridge graduate with one of the quickest minds in atomic physics.” All the better to hide her spy’s mini camera in a purse-size toiletries box.
Red Joan’s defense of feminist privilege aligns with the defense of such contemporary figures as Chelsea Manning, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, a rogue’s gallery whose newspaper profiles and magazine cover stories defend their Trojan Horse radicalism. Dench, Nunn, and Shapero belong to Britain’s film and theatrical establishment, which produces this non-inquiring political claptrap — the same as Broadway’s glorified “activists” currently staging shows like Hillary and Clinton and What the Constitution Means to Me. Red Joan celebrates stealth in a style that once was demeaningly labeled women’s fiction but now is the media standard.