By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“I don’t want a lawyer,” protests Judi Dench in the first scene of “Red Joan.” “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Oh, but she has. She’s done this movie.
A fictionalized account of the life of British spy, Melita Norwood – here called Joan Stanley and played, in old age, by Dench, and in the full bloom of her espionage career by Sophie Cookson – “Red Joan” splits its time between the 2000 arrest of Dench’s blue-haired pinko and flashbacks to the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
Joan is a lovely (albeit low-key) physics student at Cambridge whose life changes when a glamorous fellow student Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and her equally glamorous cousin, Leo (Tom Hughes), talk Joan into skipping the weekly departmental sherry and going with them to a meeting.
And not just any meeting. The pair are deeply committed Communists who hope to recruit Joan to their cause, i.e., share secrets about the British equivalent of the Manhattan Project. Joan isn’t so sure how she feels about Stalin, but she’s gobsmacked by Leo and justifies her traitorous behavior by clinging to the belief that if both sides have the Bomb, then neither side will use it.
“Red Joan” is so creakily realized, it may as well have been made in the 1940s. Despite a few wince-inducing bits of hindsight feminism (Joan is asked if she’s in charge of tea), the movie offers no clues as to who this woman is or why she did what she did.
Mostly, we see someone who’s a good listener and looks great in sweater sets. (That would be Cookson). Dench looks darn good in sweater sets, too, even as an octogenarian, but we get mere flickers of her interior self or her motivations.
“I’m so sorry, Nicky,” she says to her prim, well-connected son who fears her past will ruin his present.
“For what?” he icily replies. “For what you did or for being found out?”
It’s a very good question, one this disappointing, misguided movie makes very little effort to answer.