Many historically literate citizens of what Gore Vidal pithily dubbed “the United States of Amnesia” know about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their purported 1950s atomic spy ring that clandestinely transmitted nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
The Rosenbergs were the only civilians electrocuted during the Red Scare. But there were other similar allegations, including that participants of the New Mexico-based “Manhattan Project” to build atomic weapons—headed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—leaked N-secrets to the Ruskies as the Cold War got underway in the 1950s.
What I didn’t know is that an alleged parallel plot also played out in Britain’s atomic program. That’s the story U.K.-born director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero depict in the 1 hour, 41 minute feature film Red Joan.
The unlikely ringleader of this alleged plot was, in sexist 1940s/1950s England, a woman who according to press notes was actually named Melita Norwood, although this real life character is called “Joan Stanley” onscreen. Since 1932, Norwood served as a secretary with a research group called the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which gave the left-leaning Norwood access to N-secrets innocently called “Tube Alloys.”
Red Joan has a flashback structure, stretching back to her activist activities opposing the Spanish Civil War at the Cambridge campus (although Norwood is believed to have actually graduated from the University of Southampton). Previously, I’d read Kim Philby’s autobiography about being a Kremlin double agent and part of the well-known “Cambridge Five,” who supposedly passed covert information on to the Soviets.
Red Joan partially takes place in the 1930s and during the WWII and Cold War decades. Sophie Cookson, who appears in Kingsman and Huntsman flicks, plays the film’s protagonist in early adulthood, as she romances commies including the dashing Leo, played by Tom Hughes, and the married (complications ensue!) lefty scientist Nick, played by Ben Miles.
When in 1999 the proverbial long arm of the law presumably catches up with Joan, who may have been the KGB’s longest serving double agent, the purported Bolshie spy is played by eighty-four-year-old Judi Dench, who won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and has had six other Oscar nominations. Her credits include several stints in espionage thrillers, as James Bond’s covert operations boss “M.”
When Joan embarks on her ill-advised plan to transfer N-top secrets to the Ruskies, Moscow was London’s ally in the crusade against fascism. Furthermore, English scientists are wary of letting the United States have nuclear hegemony over not only the USSR and Britain, but the rest of the world.
The Guardian’s review of Red Joan correctly observes that Dame Judi is “underused” during her segments. And while it’s exciting to watch historical depictions of the left fighting Franco, director Nunn’s back-and-forth in time quickly wears out its welcome.
The history Nunn presents in Red Joan is indeed fascinating, but his old-fashioned depictions and dramatizations are one-dimensional and generally fall flat. Despite its promising flashback structure, Red Joan rarely rises above being a form of filmed theater and never becomes, alas, a truly realized feature film. The subject matter deserved better.