Lockdown film review: Red Joan (2018)

My lockdown watching doesn’t get much better with the horribly dreary Red Joan which sorely misuses the treasure that is Dame Judi Dench

“You did this, didn’t you”

Hurrah, you might think, a film with Dame Judi Dench in the lead part. But hold on a mo, Red Joan is also a Trevor Nunn film – take that as you will – and should it ever have reached award conversations, Dench would surely have had to be in the supporting actress category, such is her role in the way the story is lugubriously doled out like a barely dripping tap.

She plays Joan Stanley, a character loosely based on Soviet spy Melita Norwood who passed on details of the British nuclear programme to Moscow, who finds Special Branch knocking on her door and muttering treason. But the majority of the film is told in flashback, as Sophie Cookson plays the younger Joan who back in the 1940s, had her head turned at Cambridge University by the flirty Leo (Tom Hughes with an unconscionable accent) and her politics turned by the horrors of war.

The problem with this of course is that it sells older Joan very short, Lindsay Shapero’s screenplay from Jennie Rooney’s novel has little to no characterisation for Dench to work with, to explore the psychology of someone who has lived undercover for so long. Instead, she’s forced into horribly cliched verbal sparring with her son, Ben Miles lumbered fatally with jingoistic slogans in place of actual dialogue, and looking into the middle distance as the next flashback kicks in.

Cookson does a decent job in the attractively designed period scenes (Cristina Casali) and there’s half-decent work from Stephen Campbell Moore as the professor she later falls for. The likes of Nina Sosanya, Robin Soans and Nicola Sloane are wasted in tiny parts but most crucially, it is so difficult to even really begin to care, so low are the stakes raised by Nunn’s old-fashioned approach to film-making here.

Photograph: Trademark Films

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