‘Red Joan’: The British Rosenbergs?
Freddie Gaminara and Sophie Cookson in 'Red Joan’ / Nick Wall

Many historically literate citizens of what Gore Vidal pithily dubbed “the United States of Amnesia” have heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their purported 1950s atomic spy ring that clandestinely transmitted nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were the only civilians electrocuted during the Red Scare. Other more astute “non-amnesiacs” of U.S. history may also be aware of the allegations that leftwing participants in the New Mexico-based “Manhattan Project” at the Los Alamos Laboratory headed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in order to create atomic bombs in 1945 likewise leaked N-secrets to the Ruskies as the Cold War got underway by the 1950s.

What I didn’t know, and that UK-born director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero depict in the 101-minute apparently fact-based Red Joan, a new IFC Films release, is that a similar alleged plot played out in Britain’s atomic program, too. The unlikely ringleader was, in sexist 1940s-50s England, a woman, who according to press notes was actually one Melita Norwood, although per the (literally) colorful title, the double agent’s “nom de film” is “Joan Stanley.” Since 1932 Norwood served as a secretary with a research group called

Red Joan has a flashback structure that works at first, stretching back to her activities opposing the Spanish Civil War at Cambridge (although Norwood is believed to have actually graduated from the University of Southampton). Previously, I’d read Kim Philby’s autobiography about being a Kremlin double agent and part of the well-known “Cambridge Five,” who supposedly passed covert information on to the Soviets (although not necessarily of a nuclear nature). When Red Joan takes place in the 1930s and during the WWII and Cold War decades, she’s played by Sophie Cookson, the 28-year-old attractive action star who appears in Kingsman and Huntsman flicks. In Red Joan Cookson romances Commies like Tom Hughes’s dashing Leo and the married (complications ensue!) Ben Miles’s left-leaning scientist Nick.

When the proverbial long arm of the law presumably catches up with Joan—who may have been the KGB’s longest serving double agent?—in 1999, 84-year-old Dame Judi Dench depicts the purported Bolshie spy. The venerable Dench won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and was nominated five more times for Oscars. What may strike some fans as ironic is that since 1995, when Dench began playing M, she has acted in a total of seven espionage thrillers as 007’s covert branch chief—James Bond’s first female head of Britain’s MI6 secret service.

One may ask what motivated Joan/Melita and perhaps Nick to be accused of transferring N-top secrets to the Ruskies? Both of the Brits point out, correctly, that at the time they first considered their ill-advised plan, Moscow was London’s ally in the crusade against fascism. Furthermore, the English scientists are suspicious of allowing Washington to have an atomic monopoly and nuclear hegemony—and perhaps blackmail?—over not only the USSR and UK, but the rest of the world.

The Guardian’s review correctly observed that Dame Judi is “underused” during her subsequent segments starting circa when Red is set in 1999. It’s exciting for me to watch historical depictions of the Left fighting Franco and so on, but Trevor Nunn’s back-and-forth in time quickly wears out its welcome, especially with the feature’s putative star often missing in action. The reason why seems to be that Nunn, who has been artistic director for renowned theatres such as Stratford-upon-Avon’s illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company, the 79-year-old is stage-bound. While the history Nunn unearths and presents in Red Joan may indeed be fascinating (especially to people on the Left) in the chronicles of espionage, often his old-fashioned depictions and dramatizations are one-dimensional and generally fall flat. Despite its promising flashback structure, Nunn’s stodgy Red Joan rarely rises above the form of filmed theatre and never becomes, alas, a truly realized feature film in its own write/right. The subject matter deserved much more and a better cinematic style. In the end, Red Joan is a not so thrilling thriller.

It opens Friday, April 19. The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.