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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO COURTESY IFCJudi Dench, left, and Sophie Cookson, right, portray the older and younger Joan Stanley, respectively, in “Red Joan.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO COURTESY IFCJudi Dench, left, and Sophie Cookson, right, portray the older and younger Joan Stanley, respectively, in “Red Joan.”

Movie Review: ‘Red’ all over

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Paul Willistein in Focus

“Red Joan” is an odd little film worth seeing for several fine performances and a retelling of an apparently little-known World War II and Cold War era spy case.

The film has the potential of a Hitchcockian thriller, not unlike director Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller, “Saboteur” (1942).

Though it doesn’t square the circle in fulfilling the dramtic arc of the classic Hitchcock film, “Red Joan” is of interest to fans of spy thrillers, World War II history buffs and those who follow the performances of Dame Judith Olivia Dench. otherwise know as Judi Dench.

Dench is listed, or presented, as the star of “Red Joan.” While she’s excellent in the role as the older Joan Stanley, Dench’s performance in brief scenes more or less bookends flashbacks of the story as it unfolds, beginning in 1938 in London, England, and continuing through the 1950s with the real star of “Red Joan,” Sophie Cookson in the role of the young Joan Stanley.

As you might guess from the blandly and unfortunately titled, “Red Joan” (perhaps inspired by the title of the movie, “Reds,” 1981), the film purports to tell the story of a briliant young female British scientist who smuggled plans for Great Britain’s and Canada’s nuclear bomb program to the Soviet Union KGB.

“Red Joan,” based on the novel of the same title written by Jennie Rooney, is said to have been inspired by the real-life story of Melita Norwood, a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association who allegedly provided secrets that helped the Soviet Union build a nuclear bomb.

Despite its title, the film seems reluctant to paint Joan Stanley with the broad-brush of “Red-baiting.” Joan, the screenplay tells us in her words, wanted to “level the playing field” in the post-World War II nuclear era. In the film, the Soviet Union is depicted as an uneasy ally of the United States and Great Britain in the war against Nazi Germany.

As the screenplay tells it, Stanley confesses to spying and was arrested. In the real-life story, Norwood’s treachery wasn’t uncovered until 1999. Great Britain’s Ministry of Defence chose not to prosecute the 80-year-old “Granny Spy,” as the Brit tabloids dubbed her. Norwood died in 2005.

Dench (“Spectre,” 2015; Oscar, supporting actor, “Shakespeare In Love,” 1998) as the elder Joan Stanley is presented in mostly reaction shots and has scant dialogue. The technique works well in seamless and numerous segues to the story with Cookson as the young Joan Stanley. Flashbacks, and any film where two or more actors play the same character, are difficult to successfully accomplish. In this, “Red Joan” excels.

It helps that Cookson is a ruminative, luminescent and intriguing presence as the young Stanley. Cookson (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” 2017; “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 2015) is an actor whose inner thoughts and emotions are evident with mostly subtle facial gestures and body language. At times, Cookson is reminiscent of a young Lauren Bacall.

Film buffs may find it ironic that Dench played M in recent James Bond movies and Cookson was in “Kingsman,” a James Bond wannabe movie series.

Memorable in supporting roles in “Red Joan” are Tom Hughes (Leo), Joan’s love interest and a Communist; Tereza Srbova (Sonya), Joan’s best friend and a Communist; Stephen Campbell Moore (Max Davis) and Freddie Gaminara (William).

“Red Joan” is directed by Trevor Nunn (“Twelfth Night Or What You Will,” 1996; “Lady Jane,” 1986; Tony recipient, Broadway’s “Cats,” “Les Misérables”; Artistic Director, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and former Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre).

The “Red Joan” screenplay was written by Lindsay Shapero (screenplay co-writer, “The Head Hunter,” 2016).

“Red Joan” is carefully constructed, perhaps too carefully, denying the inherent power of the original story, which superceeds what we see on the screen. The real story of “Red Joan” is more fascinating than the fictionlized movie version.

“Red Joan,” MPAA rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for brief sexuality-nudity; Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance; Run time: 1 hour, 41 minutes; Distributed by IFC

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Red Joan” was filmed in Cambridge and London, England.

Box Office, May 17-19: “John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum,” opening at No. 1 with $56.8 million, did the trick as “Avengers: Endgame” took a hit from the hitman flick, ending its three-week run at No. 1 with $29.9 million, $771.3 million, four weeks.

3. “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” dropped one place, $25.1 million, $94.2 million, two weeks. 4. “A Dog’s Journey,” $8 million, opening. 5. “The Hustle” dropped two places, $6.1 million, $23.2 million, two weeks. 6. “The Intruder” dropped another two places, $4 million, $28 million, three weeks. 7. “Long Shot” dropped two places, $3.3 million, $25.6 million, three weeks. 8. “The Sun Is Also a Star,” $2.5 million, opening. 9. “Poms” dropped three places, $2.1 million, $10.1 million, two weeks. 10. “UglyDolls” dropped another three places, $1.7 million, $17.4 million, three weeks.

Unreel, May 24:

“Aladdin,” PG: Guy Ritchie directs Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Billy Magnussen in the live-action remake of the Disney animated feature musical comedy.

“Booksmart,” R: Olivia Wilde directs Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo and Beanie Feldstein in the comedy about two graduating seniors who want to have one last night of fun.

“Brightburn,” R: David Yarovesky directs Elizabeth Banks, Jackson A. Dunn, David Denman and Jennifer Holland in the Sci-Fi Thriller about a sinister alien child who lands on Earth.

“The Tomorrow Man,” PG-13: Noble Jones directs John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil and Katie Aselton in the Romance Drama about a man preparing for disaster and a woman who shops and hoards. Or course, they fall in love.

“Echo In the Canyon,” Andrew Slater directs the documentary about the 1960s’ Los Angeles Laurel Canyon music scene habituated by pop-rock music groups The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas and the Papas.

“Halston,” Frédéric Tcheng directs the documentary film about fashion designer Halston during the 1970s and after.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes