CRIME CULTURE: Inspired by true events, Red Joan is a new historical spy thriller co-starring Judi Dench. Aiming for heft and gravitas, it instead ends up being a serious let-down with racist caricatures taking centre stage alongside some of the most tedious British stiff upper lips seen in a long while, writes Therese Taylor.
Red Joan has the serious aura which is summoned by British films based on history. It is, in fact, far more fictionalised than other films based on this era such as The Imitation Game (2014), which was about the life of Alan Turing. It also lacks the strong atmosphere and sense of pace found that film. Although all of the characters offered by the script of Red Joan make reference to historical figures, each is reinterpreted and swapped around until they are indeed works of the imagination.
The points where the film departs from history are in themselves historically informative, because one can see how the troubling topic of the Soviet spies in Britain is shifted about in order to make a more acceptable story.
Red Joan is known to be based on the story of Melita Norwood, an English grandmother suddenly outed in the 1990s as having once been one of the Atom Spies in Cold War Britain.
Melita Norwood was not a privileged person and did not have a University degree. She was also the daughter of immigrants. But, in order to be in this film, Melita becomes Joan, who is entirely English, and is also promoted to being a brilliant science student at Cambridge. The reputation of the Cambridge spies is apparently so powerful that one can barely have a story of British espionage which does not feature that University.
The original espionage by Melita Norwood depended upon her secretarial role. Rather than being the scientific collaborator, and also love interest, as seen on screen, she was a person who handled documents, and so could pass them on. Love and science have been added to the story.
The most doubtful aspect of the film, in my view, is the portrayal of the Jewish characters. They are so separate from the other individuals, so distant from British culture, that Red Joan seems continuous with anti-Semitic values.
The Jewish characters in Red Joan drive the action forward, because they are the Soviet spies, they are the recruiters, they are the apologists for Stalin, and they are treacherous even to each other. They collect information which can be used for blackmail, and their own sexual standards are transgressive. They look different, with their dark faces and intense stares. They dress in more vivid colours. And they are persistently dishonest. A small sub-plot of the theft of Red Joan’s fur coat by her “friend” Sonya is an effective narrative device which shows the greed and duplicity of this Jewish refugee befriended by a genuine English maiden.
If the plot had included a Guy Burgess figure – flagrantly homosexual, none too particular when it came to arranging sexual liaisons, and knowing all the corruptions of the British upper class which he both despised and enacted – then the emphasis on Jews would be toned down. The picture of Britain in the 1930s would be amped up, and also, the film would be more interesting. So, it is a pity that we do not have Guy Burgess. He is a fully historical character, a fully English character, and very interesting.
Instead, we have English characters who hesitate, compromise and modestly hide their emotions. These qualities are indeed how the British like to define themselves, and there is not one scene in the film which challenges the national stereotypes.
Joan acts out of idealism, and the film plays to the end with the question of whether it was misplaced idealism. Did giving the Soviet Union atomic secrets help ensure a balance of forces in the Cold War?
In the final scenes of the film, her ideals, her family loyalties, and her stoicism are set out in the most convincing way. It is an optimistic conclusion which leaves most of the history and politics aside.