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Red Joan review - a fascinating true story that falls a little flat


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Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson bring this incredible true story, centring on one woman’s impossible choice during the Second World War, to life.

Image Credit: Lionsgate UK

The age-old saying "behind every strong man is an even stronger woman” has never been truer than in this film, which tells the true story of the KGB's longest-serving British spy - who just so happens to be a woman.

Red Joan brings us the story of Joan Stanley in the year 2000. Joan is now an elderly woman (played by Judi Dench) living a quiet and simple life, quite happy in her retirement. Her peaceful life is suddenly disrupted when M15 arrives with a knock on the door, bringing with them arrest warrants and charges dating back to the 1930s. We find out, as she is being taken into custody, that she is being charged with providing information to Communist Russia. As M15 and Joan’s own adult son do their best, via interrogations and questions, to find out exactly what happened, we as the audience are transported into the past to get Joan’s side of the story.

In 1938, we are introduced to the young Joan (played by Sophie Cookson), a bright young physics student at Cambridge. It is there that we see Joan spark up a friendship with Russian student Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes). As she begins to grow closer to the two cousins and eventually fall for Leo, Joan begins to see the world in a new way as they introduce her to a new way of thinking as well as some of the ideas and teachings behind the communist mindset.

Sophie Cookson does a brilliant job in her role as “young Joan”, bringing a youthful innocence and naivety to a role that, if put in the wrong hands, could be annoying and irritating - yet she succeeds in making Joan an endearing hero to the audience.

While Leo and Joan’s love story unfolds, it seems as if the film is attempting to have us believe that the two are fated to be star-crossed lovers as Leo’s radical communist beliefs alienate him from Joan, despite her supposed faith in this system as well. Yet despite every single attempt to have the audience love Leo as Joan does, it falls flat every time. Leo is nothing more than manipulative and emotionally abusive, guilting her into siding with his beliefs, goading her into breaking laws, statues of security and secrets. He then seems to flip once she has given him what he wants, and is suddenly filled with sweet nothings, whispering what is perhaps supposed to be the endearing term “little comrade” into her ear. Whilst Joan swoons, the audience holds back their gags.

One of the chords that strikes deep whilst watching this film is the idea of the hidden figures of history - as Sonya says multiple times to Joan, “no one suspects us because we're women." The film does well to highlight sexism throughout history. Joan is disregarded, and largely ignored by the men that deem themselves the important scientists in the room. Maybe history should start paying a little more attention to the women in the background, however, unfortunately, despite Judi Dench and Sophie Cooksons' admirable performances, this story of one woman's bravery and ingenuity falls unfortunately flat.

Red Joan is released in UK Cinemas on 19th of April, 2019.

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