(director: Trevor Nunn; screenwriters: Lindsay Shapero/from the novel by Jennie Rooney; cinematographer: Zac Nicholson; editor: Kristina Hetherington; music: George Fenton; cast:  Judi Dench (Joan Stanley),  Sophie Cookson (young Joan), Tom Hughes (Leo), Stephen Campbell Moore (Prof. Max Davis), Tereza Srbova (Sonya), Ben Miles (Nick), Laurence Spellman (Patrick Adams); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Parfitt; IFC Films; 2018-UK)

A dull telling of a lively true spy yarn.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dull telling of a lively true spy yarn. Brit director Trevor Nunn (“Twelfth Night”), noted stage director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, shows little affinity for film.  This is his first film in 12 years. It’s based on the best-selling 2014 novel by Jennie Rooney. and is flatly written by Lindsay Shapero. The real-life spy for the Soviets was the octogenarian widow Melita Norwood, who passed onto them atomic secrets during W.W.II. Her name is changed here to Joan Stanley, and she’s played by Judi Dench, in a lesser performance than her usual great ones.

In 2000, The retired 88-year-old Joan Stanley (
Judi Dench) is arrested for treason in her suburban home by MI5. She acts surprised, as the authorities claim she’s a British physicist who passed on the West’s nuclear secrets to the Soviets during the war years. 

What follows are flash-backs to her days at Cambridge and how she got involved in helping the Soviets.

In 1938 the young Joan
(Sophie Cookson) became best friends with her fellow Cambridge student, the perky Jewish emigre from Germany, Sonya (Tereza Srbova, Czech actress). The fun-loving Sonya took the brilliant physics student to Communist Party meetings. At those gatherings, Joan met and fell in love with the young Communist true believer, Sonya’s German cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), a fiery idealist determined to “rebuild civilization in a totally new way.”

Upon graduation as a top
physics student, Joan’s invited to work in a secret government laboratory, run by Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), who considers the Soviet Union an ally of England. When the British built a nuclear fission facility in Montreal, Joan was there with Prof. Davis (not only working for the married man, but also his mistress). Leo (who was now working with the KGB) was also in Montreal.

Joan naively explains her idealism, saying
“I’m not a traitor! I wanted everyone to share the same knowledge…because only that way could the horror of another world war be averted. If you look back at history, you’ll see I was right.” Her barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) at first finds this incredulous and then tries to help her fight the charges.

There’s no surprises, no great drama
and no suspense. It’s riddled with cliches and actors just going through the motions. The true story, in the hands of these second-tier filmmakers,  seems more like its fiction.

      Dench and Sophie Cookson in Red Joan (2018)