Review: RED JOAN Is A Bland Espionage Thriller Elevated By Judi Dench

red joan dench
Judi Dench as “Joan Stanley” in Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Red Joan is a new British spy thriller directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Judi Dench. The film tells the story of a British woman who, in her old age, is accused of funneling secrets about the U.K.’s attempts to make an atomic bomb to the KGB in her younger years. It debuted at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

The story of this movie is quite interesting, but the way in which the script is written doesn’t live up to the potential of the premise. The film very easily could have been an intense thriller, but instead, it largely plays out like a melodrama with a touch of espionage. A movie about a woman spreading secrets about the atomic bomb should have been far more involving than this is.

One of the biggest issues with the film is that the characters aren’t particularly well-developed. The movie tries to go for a feeling of moral ambiguity in relation to the protagonist, but is not effective in so doing. For this trope to be effective, you don’t have to make the protagonist likable, but you do have to make them compelling. The film doesn’t make the character’s motivations particularly clear, and as a result, it is hard to feel anything but negativity towards her actions.

In terms of pacing, the movie was relatively weak. For much of the film, it feels like next to nothing is happening. Whereas most movies of this type have mounting tension and suspense, this is mostly stagnant and has very little excitement as a whole. Simply put, the film is pretty boring. Even the ending, which should be the most exciting part, feels very anticlimactic.

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Sophie Cookson as “Young Joan” and Tom Hughes as “Leo” in Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The movie also fails to create the emotion necessary to make the narrative work. There needed to be more of a connection with the characters to create any significant level of emotion. As a whole, the film feels cold and distant, and while this would have worked had the story been more suspenseful, the largely dramatic tone of this movie results in the film as a whole coming across as bland.

The area in which this movie does succeed is its performances, particularly the lead turn by Dench. Dench is as wonderful as always in her role — it’s just a shame that she wasn’t given more to do. She is the only reason that makes this film worth watching. The rest of the cast isn’t bad, but nobody particularly stands out. Sophie Cookson shows potential as the younger version of Dench’s character. Perhaps she will breakout into lead roles with a better script.

On a technical level, the movie is decent but nothing spectacular. The production design is minimal for the most part, since a majority of the film is told through flashbacks during interviews. The portions of the movie set in the past do a good enough job of periodization, but the parts set in the grey interview rooms are drab and not particularly pleasing to the eye.

Overall, Red Joan was a relatively disappointing film. Although it is mostly watchable, largely due to a great performance by Judi Dench, it is an espionage thriller with next to no excitement.

Red Joan is in theaters and on VOD beginning April 19.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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