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TIFF Review: Red Joan

The current political climate certainly seems the appropriate time to release a film that relates to Russian spies and intelligence.  And just as there is a lot of political strategy that goes on behind the scenes today, back during World War II, tensions between the UK, Russia and the United States were complicated, with allies constantly changing.

Red Joan is the story of Joan Stanley, inspired by real-life British KGB agent Melita Norwood.  We meet her as an elderly woman (Judi Dench), tending to her garden, when she is suddenly arrested for treason.  Through her telling of her story to the authorities, we flashback to Cambridge in 1938 where young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is studying physics.  There is nary a woman in sight in her program, and she studies hard to prove herself.  However, a chance meeting of a young woman, Sonya (Tereza Srbova) brings into her life Leo (Tom Hughes).  Both have fled Nazi Germany, but both also have communist ties.  When she graduates and gets a position among the team creating the atom bomb, her allegiance both to Leo and her country is tested, when he asks her to start smuggling information out to help his native Russia.

Written by Lindsay Shapero and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, Red Joan should be a captivating delve into an extraordinary, and extraordinarily strong, woman.  She was ahead of her time in so many realms.  However, there’s something about the film that just doesn’t quite bring the sense of urgent drama a story like this should have.  While the stakes for Joan are high, they never feel as such.  The acting is fine, the writing is adequate but the film is only that.  Not that I would ever suggest taking the great Dame Judi Dench out of a movie, but the back and forth flashbacks often disrupt the WWII narrative just when momentum has truly begun and is just unoriginal storytelling.

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