Red Joan is a film based on a book about a woman, Melita Norwood who, during and shortly after World War II was involved as a spy for the USSR. Norwood was a physicist who became involved in research to develop the atom bomb. The US was not the only country involved. Research was being done by the Nazis, the Russians and even Canadians. Stanley was also a communist sympathizer and acted as one of the longest serving spies for the USSR ultimately giving the Russians critical information that allowed them to be the second country to develop the bomb after the US. She was only uncovered some 50 years later when she was in her 80’s. Although she was arrested, she was never prosecuted largely because of her age and the time that had passed since the time of her actions.
For the purposes of the film, Melita Norwood’s name is changed to Joan Stanley, as the director was adapting the true story with a somewhat different take on the motives driving the characters. I was keen to see this film mostly because of Judy Dench who did not disappoint but the film was not the story I was expecting. While based on the book and the true events the director and writer changed it in important ways. We follow Stanley’s arrest and interrogation and as she describes her actions we are taken back to the 40’s to see how she is recruited to work on the bomb and later decides to provide information to Russian agents. The acting is competent (except for Dench, who is great as usual) and the costumes and recreation of wartime England are very well done but the story was pretty much destroyed. In the Q and A following the film we learn that Stanley/Norwood was actually a true and committed member of the communist party and supporter of Stalinist Russia. She betrayed her country out of this commitment. In the movie however they do acknowledge her connection to Russian agents, but she is portrayed as anti-communist and her actions are driven more by her desire for peace. She is convinced that the US use of the bomb to end the war with Japan unbalances the world and would lead to a nuclear holocaust. She thought it was necessary for the Russians to have the bomb as well to ensure no one ever used the bomb. Not a very convincing argument and it trivialized what might have been a interesting exploration of why people like Stanley/Norwood were convinced to support Russia and communism of the time. She was not alone in making that commitment either in the UK or the US and that seems an opportunity missed by the director. I recommend the movie to all Judy Dench fans but beyond that, wait for it to appear on Netflix.