There’s no denying Judi Dench’s watchability factor. The Grand Dame of cinema commands the screen whenever she’s on it – which isn’t all that much in the not-so-thrilling spy thriller Red Joan. Don’t let the poster, trailer and top billing fool you. Dench is merely a high-profile vehicle for bookending a story told primarily through flashbacks, with Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Secret Service) playing young Joan Stanley, an impressionable and idealistic Brit turned longtime spy for the KGB.
Red Joan is based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who spent decades passing British atomic secrets to the Soviets for little or no financial gain. By the time her past caught up with her, Norwood was a great-grandma living a quiet life in suburban London, though still secure in her communist-sympathetic convictions.
Sounds intriguing enough. Fascinating even. So why is this movie so darned dull? Perhaps because very little seems to happen. A group of young comrades recruit Joan during her college days at Cambridge. She’s either totally on board with their ideals, or just head over heels in love with communist-minded bad boy Leo (Tom Hughes). Their on-again, off-again relationship seems to dominate the plot but doesn’t offer much insight into Joan’s true motivations. Did she sell secrets for love of country (be it Britain, the USSR or the world at large) or love of Leo? By the time the credits rolled – after 100 slow minutes – I didn’t really know, or care. Judi Dench is great, of course. The movie itself – not so much.