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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Romantic Spy Film Needs More Judi Dench
by James Colt Harrison

Judi Dench has always turned in great performances, both on stage and on film. She’s the ultimate actress, a giant, a gem, an Oscar® winner, a Tony recipient. So it is puzzling why director Trevor Nunn has not given her enough to do in their new film Red Joan. She should be in more scenes. (Full disclosure: I want her to play every part!)

Dench portrays the title role in Red Joan. She’s Joan Stanley, a once brilliant physicist who is hired as a British Civil Servant during the days when the atom bomb was being designed in the 1940s. We would probably  call her a pacifist today. In her youth she was highly opposed to the use of the atom bomb killing millions of people during wartime. She was highly conflicted in her feelings for her country and loyalty. As a matter of conviction, she felt the Soviet Union should share in the secrets to “equalize” the danger of using the bomb. She felt if everyone had the secrets nobody would use the bomb in a war. Naïve, yes, but heartfelt for her.

Dench’s Joan is now in her 80s, and the British authorities bang on her door and arrest her. She is confused concerning why she’s being apprehended. It seems she was a communist party sympathizer recruited by the KGB as a spy. She apparently passed on secrets to the Reds in complete innocence. Dench, made up here to look old and haggard and rather frumpy, is still attractive in real life. But as a consummate actress, she reminds me of 1940’s star Bette Davis, who never gave a fig about the way she looked. It’s the “Character” that counts. The Red Joan costume designer and hair and makeup artist rightly sabotage Dench's appearance with a vengeance.

In a bit of a confusing technique, director Trevor Nunn uses the “flashback” technique to show Joan as a young woman. That is accomplished by featuring newcomer Sophie Cookson as a young Joan. It’s also a way to show Joan as an idealistic college student who has a “Mary Poppins outlook” on life and doesn’t realize the dangers lurking about. One of those dangers comes in the form of rabidly communistic fellow Leo Galich, played with intensity by newcomer Tom Hughes. Naturally, Joan falls in love with him, and it gives director Nunn an excuse to interject some mild sex into the story. It also gives Joan a means of passing on secrets to Leo, which he in turn dispatches to Moscow. Bad boy!

With the flashing back and forth from past to present your head gets dizzy trying to keep everything straight. But it’s an interesting true story. Joan Stanley was a real person in England.

Production values are good and the different eras get captured perfectly by costume designer Charlotte Walter, set decorator Tanya Bowd and production designer Cristina Casali. Ms. Cookson looks like a 1940's beauty, but she’s contemporary enough and not an off-putting cartoon character in her period clothes.

Those movie fans interested in World War II happenings or addicted to true stories should be satisfied with this romantic thriller/spy movie. We just wish Ms. Dench would have been given more to do.

(Released by IFC Films and rated “R” for brief sexuality/ nudity,)

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