Film Review: Red Joan

Trevor Nunn’s mystery drama Red Joan is a broadly entertaining watch, although it is not quite the tense narrative the premise suggests.

Joan Stanley, a retired civil servant, is arrested at her home in a surprising turn of events. She is accused of being a spy for Russia following World War II. As the police question her, Joan looks back on her time as a student…

Inspired by a true story, Red Joan has all the components required to make a riveting spy thriller. After all, there is the war time activity, the varying factions in Joan’s life, and the question over her collusion. Yet director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero opt for a different tact, offering instead a melodrama with a mystery slant. This may disappoint some viewers, but overall the film is executed fairly well within this genre. 

The narrative is told through lengthy flashbacks. Viewers do not know whether Joan is guilty, and Nunn keeps viewers guessing for a significant portion of the film. As the main players become clear, Joan’s beliefs are ambiguous. This sense of mystery helps to reel viewers in. Once the the question of Joan’s guilt is answered, Red Joan has offered enough in terms of characters and plotting to keep viewers engaged. 

Joan is an interesting protagonist. She seems miles apart from what the police accuse her of, at least in the beginning. As the film progresses, the question of persuasion and motivation becomes more prevalent. Does Joan believe in the cause, or is her head just turned by Leo? The answer given in the final third of the film feels like a cop out. It is too neat, and in keeping with the “very British drama” feel. 

Production values are good throughout. Performances are also solid. Sophie Cookson is believable as the young Joan, whilst Tereza Srbova’s charisma shines through. Judi Dench is reliable as always. 

More than anything, Red Joan feels like wasted potential. All the ingredients to make a great film were present, yet the execution disappoints. Whilst Nunn’s film does entertain, it is not particularly memorable or thought provoking.