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film review
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Sophie Cookson stars as young Joan Stanley in Red Joan.NICK WALL/Courtesy of Mongrel

  • Red Joan
  • Directed by Trevor Nunn
  • Written by Lindsay Shapero
  • Starring Sophie Cookson, Judi Dench and Tereza Srbova
  • Classification 14A
  • 110 minutes


2.5 out of 4 stars

Based on a Jennie Rooney novel of the same name and loosely inspired by the life of British KGB informant Melita Norwood, Red Joan is a soft-boiled spy film set at the dawn of the atomic age.

Although the story sounds fascinating – subterfuge! centrifuge! pinkos! – the film is cold fusion. After a student delivers a communist-sympathizing speech, he is told his talk was “very moving.” To which he replies, “I wanted it to be rousing.” That pretty much sums up the underwhelming vibe of a fragile film that is otherwise well-acted, ideologically thoughtful and lovely to look at.

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Judi Dench is underused in Red Joan, Brad Wheeler writes.NICK WALL PHOTOGRAPHY/Courtesy of Mongrel

Judi Dench plays elderly Joan. After being arrested for espionage that took place decades earlier, her memories serve as flashbacks that begin in 1938, when she was a demure Cambridge co-ed, comely idealist and dedicated neutron enthusiast. Young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson, magnetic in the role. Dench is underused, though. The film’s suspense is waiting on the world-class actress to bust out some chops. It never happens. The spy who bored me, rather.

Red Joan opens May 3 in Toronto and Vancouver; May 10 in Montreal.

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