Red Joan


Did a humble British woman prevent World War III? The film Red Joan, a biopic of Melita Norwood, suggests that that was her motive in providing secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Based on Jennie Rooney’s novel recounting true events, Red Joan begins with her arrest at the age of 88 in 2000. As Joan Stanley (played by Judi Dench), she is interrogated in installments, with flashbacks to relevant portions of her life (played by Sophie Cookson in the earlier part of her life) that provide the complicated context.

As a brilliant physics student at Cambridge University, she meets Leo (Tom Hughes) while he is arguing on campus that the people need to be supported in the ongoing Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the British Communist Party, and the two are soon romantically attracted. Upon graduation Joan is hired to work on a secret British atomic bomb project; her job is to provide the diagrams and texts of reports. Joan on one occasion impresses her boss, Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), with her knowledge of the subject, and soon she is involved in yet another romance. The project moves to Canada, where she again encounters Leo.

After the United States bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Leo’s plea with her that the Russians need to learn how to build an atomic bomb seems to make sense to her. She starts to leak the information in 1945, but she is not caught until 55 years later. Her culpability emerges from information collected in the prosecution of one of physicists in the project, by then Sir William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), for treason. During her interrogation, she relies on her son Nick (Ben Miles), who is chagrined to learn the truth. In a final scene, she explains in a public statement in front of her residence that she helped the Russians so that the two superpowers would deter each other, thereby ensuring that no more devastating nuclear bombs would ever be used in war. “I was fighting for the living. I loved my country!” Titles at the end point out that the British government decided not to prosecute her as she was then pushing 90. (She died at age 93.)

Directed by Trevor Nunn, Red Joan has been nominated by the Political Film Society as the best film of 2019 in two categories—best film exposé and best film on the need for peace.  MH