Film Review: Red Joan (2019)

Regardless of your nationality, you usually learn two things soon after you start training as an intelligence officer: one is the importance of studying the more menial kind of target for recruitment. Many successful operations have begun by recruiting an office cleaner, secretary or security guard rather than going straight for the important people at the top of the organisation. The second lesson is that a romantic relationship is a poor basis for agent recruitment. It has its uses of course (see below), but it will usually only get you so far. Clearly the makers of this movie have never served as intelligence officers (or even spoken to one). Perhaps they think that you really don’t have to know much about a profession in order to write a movie about it?

“Red Joan” is based on a novel that was inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood. It mirrors the real story in that the “heroine” is a lowly female spy who passes valuable nuclear secrets to the Russians and survives, undetected, to become a respectable old granny. But this is about where the inspiration stops.

The real Norwood was a bitter, rather frumpy secretary of average intelligence who had read one year of Latin before dropping out from the University of Southampton. Norwood’s alter ego in the film, Joan Stanley, is a beautiful and astonishingly talented atomic physicist from the University of Cambridge – because spies can’t come from dull backgrounds or look frumpy can they? And besides, it has to be Cambridge because that’s where all Russians spies came from in the thirties, right? By twisting the story in this manner right from the word go, the film makers miss the very reason why Norwood was so effective and why she went undetected for so long. In many respects Norwood was the perfect spy. But these guys just don’t get it.

You could argue that the film reflects the use of “Romeo” spies as perfected by Markus Wolff, the East German spymaster during the Cold War. But again, the whole point of Romeo spies is that they tend to be directed at lonely women with low-self esteem. Not sex bombshells with genius level IQs.

Of course they are making a dramatic movie, not a filming a classroom lesson in espionage, so you could forgive them for tampering with the truth. At least you could if only the film wasn’t so dull. A lot of real espionage is grind and boredom and endless paperwork, but it really does have its moments of nail-biting excitement as well. There are moments when the fate of the world (or perhaps a large part of it) really does hang in the balance. This film never has those moments. The film makers try to raise the tension, but Joan is never really threatened. I nodded off into my popcorn twice before the credits rolled.

The film has one other weakness: the casting of Dame Judi Dench as the older Joan. Don’t get me wrong, Dame Judi is a superb actor. But she is also M in the Bond movies. It seems that the producers thought that they were strengthening their hand by casting a character from the Bond franchise: “A-ha, this will remind the audience that this is a spy movie and not just some drama-doc!” But it doesn’t. Rather than highlighting the sheer ordinariness of “Joan” and showing that in the field of espionage ordinary people sometimes perform the most extraordinary, world changing tasks, the movie only shows that the sort of people who do this work look beautiful and are exceptionally gifted. The true lesson of Norwood’s story gets lost.

Although the real Norwood was vindictive and despicable, her story does have valuable lessons about the reality of spying and how great spies are recruited and run (she wasn’t publicly exposed until long after the Cold War was over). By failing to understand their material and by failing to realise just how tense the work of a spy can be, the film makers have reduced her story to a Mills and Boon episode with lots of sex and a dreary (and rather questionable) morality lesson tacked on for the last five minutes.

It is not a terrible film, but, from the point of view of learning about real spies, you can happily give this one a miss.

[NB Our film reviews are not, primarily, assessments of the cinematic value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the film’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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