Red Joan is little more than a cheap bait-and-switch. The film promises a meaty, spy-themed drama starring Dame Judi Dench only to have the rug pulled out by focusing instead on a dreary, predictable tale told almost entirely in flashback.
Helmed by theatrical impresario Trevor Nunn, the film feels both stagey and amateurish, with poorly lit sets and rote blocking fit for a broadcast bio-pic but hardly the stuff of cinematic invention. The true life story of Melita Norwood serves as the basis for this fictionalized tale of a young, idealistic woman who served as one of the KGB’s longest serving assets in the UK. Yet instead of a white-knuckle Cold War thriller, we’re treated to a dull, rote, banal character piece that bends into uncomfortable positions in order to make the character somewhat sympathetic.
Joan Stanley (Sophie Cookson in the flashbacks) is a brilliant scientist with political naiveté, who falls for an ongoing series of loquacious men and fast-talking women who push her to do nothing short of committing treason against her country.
Cookson has the unenviable task of playing a younger version of Dench, and despite the Kingsman star’s attempt, it’s a journey doomed from the start. Cross-cut between Dench giving testimony and Cookson living a life of adventure could have have crafted a two-faceted gem under better hands, but instead we’re left with a boring mass of clichés.
As tedious as it is forgettable, Red Joan is perfect fodder for distracted viewing, something to watch on the telly while snoozing or doing cross-stitch. As a theatrical experience, the movie is excruciating. It wastes the titanic talent of Dench on what surely was a favor for her longtime collaborator.