Spies girl: Judi Dench stars in Red Joan
21 April, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Judi Dench in Red Joan
Directed by Trevor Nunn
ENSURE your actions are motivated by your moral compass – it seems like a straightforwardly decent concept in terms of how to live your life, and is at the centre of this film that tells the story of a young Cambridge physics graduate who was faced with an agonising decision to make.
Now imagine you have watched the frightening rise of fascism across Europe. Imagine you have lived through the Depression. Imagine you have watched your country’s government try to negotiate with Hitler’s Germany, and tell you repeatedly the real enemy is a country whose workers overthrew a monstrous Tsar and a hereditary regime in the hope of building something new. All the while, you are peddled blatant lies in British newspapers, you watch Spanish civilians murdered by German and Italian troops while your college mates head to the Iberian peninsula to fight. Imagine being a politically clued-up Cambridge graduate in the 30s, and having the information and experiences they had.
Then imagine your first-class physics degree brings you into government work to create a weapon of mass destruction. By now, you have now lived through a world war, you have seen the daily grief etched across an entire nation for the second time in a generation… and Soviet Russia (this is pre-Khrushchev’s 1956 speech that laid bare Stalin’s monstrous mass murder), instrumental in beating fascism, is now portrayed as an enemy.
This is the situation Melita Norwood found herself in. Her answer was to succumb to pressure from others and use her Cambridge contacts to hand over research to the USSR to give them parity in terms of the atom bomb research. She was unmasked in 1999 and was seen as the final Cambridge spy who had yet to be caught.
Inspired by Norwood, here Judi Dench is “Red Joan” in her dotage, looking back at her actions and pondering her motivations. Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan, telling the story of a woman who acted on what her conscience told her she must do.
Her work, it is claimed, helped shorten the time the USSR joined the nuclear age by around five years. It also is noted her work helped ensure the USA was not the sole post-war superpower – and many believe helped create an uneasy balance of mutual mass destruction, and stopped any more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.
Whatever you feel about the pros and cons of her behaviour, it is a fascinating story, one that brings that “low dishonest decade” as WH Auden called it, alive again – a decade that has frightening similarities to contemporary times.
While the story is well told here, its portrayal of Britain feels lifted a little from the sanitised TV vision of Downton Abbey. It works for the most part in a fairly weak-knee’d way, until we reach a climax that has Dench explaining the motivations for her behaviour. It is at this point that the lukewarm storytelling comes into its own, and presents the viewer with the moral dilemma in front of her. It might be hard to shake the feeling this would have worked better as a three-parter on the Beeb, but for this piece of classic Dench actor-craft.
Author David Burke wrote the book The Spy Who Came In From The Co-Op, which tells Melita’s story and on which this film is loosely based. An aside: he also wrote The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists, which reveals the stories of the people who lived in the Isokon building in South End Green, many of whom were political contemporaries of Red Joan.