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GENRE: Biopic/WWII spy drama

Director: Trevor Nunn

Starring: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Treza Srbova, Ted Hughes, Stephen Campbell Moore

Rating: Rated R for brief sexuality/nudity 

Women are the spies in Red Joan, an engrossing WWII British tale that proves a country’s worst deeds can be accomplished by its meekest members.  Fictionalized (from a novel) and dramatized (by the filmmakers), it’s based on the true story of Melita Norwood (1912-2005), who Stalin considered his most important spy in Britain.

Helmed by legendary Royal Shakespeare company stage director Trevor Nunn, telling details impel the story—mink coats, Spanish Civil War rallies, B&W newsreels, claustrophobic bunkers, blackboards covered with scientific equations that will change the world.  Red Joan is not action-packed, but rich in compelling performances, fantastic vintage costumes and “dark fairytale” music that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Like a provocateur, the film also raises essential questions about the nature of heroism, but won't answer them.   

The film story: In 2000, one day after a knighted Foreign Office official dies and the press uncovers his tawdry secrets, MI-5 investigators arrest widow Joan Stanley (85-year old Judi Dench, glorious in her frumpy hair and deep wrinkles) for 27 breaches against the Official Secrets Act.

Ridiculous, her outraged lawyer son protests. (Ah, yet another child who doesn’t really know his mother.) But soon the mind-boggling truth comes out. In flashbacks, the “Granny Spy” remembers…

It’s 1938 in England, in the terrifying years of WWII and shifting international alignments. Great Britain, Canada, Russia and Germany are competing to develop the nuclear bomb, and to prevent the U.S. from claiming that dubious honor. Though Russia is now fighting Nazi Germany, the Brits refuse to share research with their new ally.

Into this political chaos comes a brilliant, idealistic physics graduate student (played by the marvelous Sophie Cookson.) Joan becomes an assistant in the top secret Tube Alloy project, headed by patriotic genius Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore). In wonderfully historic and sometimes sexy scenes, Joan falls under the hypnotic glamour of Russian/German refugees Sonya (Treza Srbova) and her dashing cousin Leo (Ted Hughes), who makes Joan his “beloved comrade.”   In the often hilarious sexist behavior of the times, no one pays Joan much attention—thus allowing her to act with impunity.

Horrified that the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan – two times—without warning, Joan becomes convinced that the nuclear playing field should be leveled so that no one government will ever again have the sole power to kill so many people. For almost 35 years, the KGB knows her as "Agent Hola." 

Was she a high-minded ultra-civilized humanitarian, working  to prevent another nightmare war--yet blind to the truth of Stalinism?  Or a narrow-minded traitor? Or both? As a classic example of someone who thinks they are doing good, even if it’s criminal, Joan’s actions reverberate to today. Is she any different from conscientious objectors? Or an information dumper like Julian Assange? Or Trump administration leakers? Where is the line between good and evil in these world-wide and speed-of-light conundrums?

Too bad Agent Hola and her successors never  learned Dorothy Day's advice: "The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart,, a reovolution which has to start with each one of us?  

Marcianne Miller has reviewed films in Los Angeles and Asheville. She is a member of SEFCA and NCFCA.

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