RED JOAN : War Heroine or Traitress ?

When the cinema’s promising youth meets one of the most acclaimed actresses in the field, Red Joan starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson play (older and younger) communist English spy, who has been transmitting information to the KGB for 40 years. The film is based on the true story of the English Melita Norwood.

England, 2000. Joan Stanley, a quiet old woman from the London suburbs, is arrested by MI5 for treason after the death of a famous communist English spy with whom she was friends at the time : Sir Mitchell Hope.

Through Joan’s memories, which she revisits during her interrogation, we will discover her complex and extraordinary story. During her studies in Cambridge, she met the people who are going to be her allies and true friends : a pair of Russian cousins who had fled to Germany and then to England. Leo and Sonya will irremediably?? attract Joan to the Communist Party meetings of the time, where young people gathered to debate and share ideas about, for example, fascism in Spain. But Joan finds herself more romantically attracted to Leo, leader of the Party’s demonstrations and events in Cambridge, and she will find herself divided between her duty and the passionate love that devours her when she reaches a position that will give her access to the atomic bomb’s datas.

With this drama, Trevor Nunn, director also known for Les Misérables, plunges us into the heart of a past that some would have preferred to forget.

It was one morning of September 1999 that the case broke. Melita Norwood gave a statement to the world’s media outside her home in Bexleyheath, South-East London after they discovered that she had been a Soviet spy for nearly 40 years. She had passed some of Britain’s most sensitive secrets to the Russians, including vital intelligence about the development of the atomic bomb. It’s this unbelievable story that director Trevor Nunn wanted to adapt with Red Joan, the story of a woman that the English have long perceived as the greatest traitress in history.

Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson are the stars of this biopic as the film’s main character, present in 2000 and through flashbacks from the 1940s. The duo, even if they never meet, manage to find a balance and even to complete each other. We find in our old lady this young Joan, intrepid and ready to do anything, even betray her country, to be in harmony with heru ideals. The performance of Tom Hughes, starring as Leo, the leader of the Cambridge Communist Party, and Joan’s first true love, which is hypnotizing and really breaks the screen, will be applauded. His blue eyes are full of grandiose emotions, as if he had really lived the whole story of the young Leo he plays.

We can ask ourselves a legitimate question and that some will probably ask themselves after seeing the film : Are we glamourising Joan’s betrayal ? The story makes it clear that Joan first resists to the incessant demands of her friends to betray the state secrets entrusted to her. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she believes that everyone must be on an equal footing in order to avoid further mass destruction in the future. So it was not really some communist beliefs that pushed Joan to become a Soviet spy, but rather the horrors she herself believed that had  been created through the atomic bomb. But if it were just that… It is said subtly in the film that the real “Joan Stanley”  continued giving crucial information to the USSR for nearly 40 years. So ….. we are entitled to wonder how such an intelligent woman, holding a master’s degree in Physics, could have remained loyal during all these years to a regime that has caused millions of deaths, impoverished and oppressed an entire people? Does Red Joan really tell the story of Melita Norwood and through what eyes?

An important theme is also addressed in the film, the place of women in society at that time. Women were invisible, they didn’t even have the same equivalence as men when they graduated and this is what allowed some of them to become active in activities such as espionage. Of course, no one would suspect a woman. This theme is brilliantly treated, and the film is absolutely realistic. The work on costumes and sets is fascinating. The only thing we can really blame Red Joan for is the lack of tension that should have carried the viewer throughout the film and that only arrives late.

A complex and ambivalent story, which will move some and anger others. In the end, Red Joan asks us about love, loyalty, friendship and honor. Red Joan is simply asking us about life.

Release Date : 24.04.19 / Distribution : KRS Releasing / Screenplay : Lindsay Shapero / Director : Trevor Nunn / Cast : Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes / 1H50

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