Red Joan

Red Joan is loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood, the so-called ‘granny spy’ who passed British atomic research material to the Soviets from the late 1930s to the 1960s, becoming more valuable to the KGB than the Cambridge Five – Kim Philby et al.  It’s the movie version of a 2014 book of the same name. 

Judy Dench plays the unassuming old lady whose quiet life in a semi-detached house in suburban Bexleyheath in London is suddenly disturbed by MI5 agents pounding on her door.  A senior government figure has been unmasked as a long-term Soviet spy and the case against him implicates her too.  They arrest her, charge her with espionage and take her away for interrogation.

As the questioning proceeds the film flashes back and forth to 1930s England where young Joan Stanley (Sophie Cookson from Kingsman) has just started her studies at Cambridge University in physics.  The shadow of fascism looms over Europe and young intellectuals in particular are appalled by the brutality of what is happening in Spain.  She meets a glamorous Jewish fellow student, who introduces Joan to her cousin, a young socialist firebrand and refugee from Nazi Germany (Tom Hughes, reprising the German accent he used playing Prince Albert in Victoria). 

I won’t say more about all that friendship and romance stuff because it makes a good story.  It’s fiction, of course, but the business about her wartime employment and how she gained access to British atomic secrets is surprisingly true to the facts, as a quick googling of the Norwood story reveals:  the British atomic weapons research project really WAS called Tube Alloys, as it is in the film, and Norwood was unmasked when material supplied by a Soviet defector was made public.  (Interestingly, though they’d had their suspicions about her for a long time, the Brits never prosecuted Norwood even after she confessed in 1999, and she died a few years later in 2005 at the age of 90.)

The film has Joan Stanley at Cambridge, presumably because everyone knows that was a hotbed of youthful communism in the thirties, but in fact Melita Norwood studied at the University College of Southampton.  The film has her chosen by the Professor because he wants an assistant with a good scientific brain but in real life she studied Latin and logic, not physics, and dropped out before the war to get a job.

None of this matters; it’s not a documentary and we expect this kind of thing to tweak the facts to cater to modern sensibilities. 

Where I think the film does have a problem is with its confused political morality, but if you don’t want to know anything at all about the ending read no further. 

The movie Joan/Melita is portrayed as speaking out in front of her socialist comrades against the Hitler/Stalin pact and the faked confessions and show trials that preceded Stalin’s mass murders of his former henchmen.  It even has her leaving the fold for a while over these events, and reacting with outrage when a former lover asks her to spy for the Soviet Union now that Uncle Joe is an ally.

‘And yet you were prepared to betray your country to that murderous dictator even when the war was over and he was no longer our ally?’ asks her appalled son of his aged mother when the truth comes out.  It’s a good question.  All she can say in her defence is that she did it not to profit herself but because she thought the nuclear arms race should be on a level playing-field. 

Which is what Melita Norwood said, but there’s no evidence she had any scruples about Stalin.  I’ll bet that like her contemporaries Philby et al, she was duped at first then wilfully turned a blind eye.  The movie is having a bob each way:  it wants us to see a young, beautiful idealistic woman taking a stand against the evils of Stalinism, then doesn’t explain why she suddenly decides to turn a blind eye.    

The moral inconsistency carries over into the portrayal of Joan’s relationship with her son.  Like Melita Norwood’s child (a daughter, not a son) he was oblivious of his mother’s secret life until her exposure.  ‘I was right, wasn’t I?’ she says, arguing that giving the Soviet Union the bomb led to mutual deterrence which prevented nuclear war.  It’s a good point, I suppose, although it still doesn’t get over the Stalinism objection, but her son rejects it angrily and cogently until, for no apparent reason, he does a sudden turnaround at the end and declares to the world that his mother was right and has nothing to be ashamed of!

I can’t deny that I enjoyed Red Joan.  The British spy thriller is my favourite genre, and it’s a truth universally acknowledged these days that almost any film with Judi Dench in it is worth going to see. 

The best books and movies about the world of espionage are honest about its moral murkiness.  Think John Le Carre.  You’ve got to show it warts and all, even if those warts are on the soul of your pretty young heroine.