Review: Spy story 'Red Joan' a snooze

Judi Dench stars in stultifying drama that bends over backwards to justify her presence

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Judi Dench in "Red Joan."

In "Red Joan," Judi Dench plays a British woman who was, in her late 80s, busted for her treasonous past as a Russian spy.

Judi Dench as a spy? Fabulous! There's just one tiny problem: the espionage in question took place decades earlier, and our whiz-bang technology has not yet advanced to the point where we can de-age Judi Dench. So what "Red Joan" presents is a lot of scenes of Dench's character, being interrogated by police, reacting to reenactments and memories of her actions. She's a spectator to her own story.  

That's the main problem with "Red Joan," but it's not the only problem in this dull tale of traded secrets in the atomic age. 

This period drama is stuffy and slow, told in a clumsy way to justify Dench's casting and presence, and is still a waste of her time. 

Sophie Cookson plays young Joan Stanley, a character inspired by the real life story of Melita Norwood, whose name was changed in the movie because, um, "Red Joan" is a better title than "Red Melita?" 

Joan is a student at Cambridge in 1938 who falls in with the campus Communists because, well, cute boys. She takes a liking to Leo (Tom Hughes), who kisses Joan and calls her "my little comrade" in a way that gets creepier each time he says it. 

Joan's proficiency in atomic physics lands her a job with a team working on building a bomb, and soon she's handing over privileged information to the Russians in an effort to, in her absurd justification, level the global playing field.

By the time she's caught, Joan — now Dench — denies any wrongdoing before finally accepting it. The British government shrugged its shoulders, deciding she was too old to prosecute. It's an indifference that carries over to "Red Joan." 

'Red Joan'


Rated R: for brief sexuality/nudity

Running time: 100 minutes