Snoozer Agent

Critics: Spy drama ‘Red Joan’ features fine acting but few thrills

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

By its nature, nothing is as it seems when it comes to espionage. Such is the case —  in more ways than one — with “Red Joan,” the 2019 spy flick from British director Kevin Nunn. 

The fictionalized story of real-life English physicist-turned-KGB informant Melita Norwood, “Red Joan” bounces between the early-21st-century arrest of aged Joan Stanley (played by Dame Judi Dench) and her 20-something self in the late-1930s and ’40s (Sophie Cookson). Juxtaposing a dowdy Dench in spinstery sweaters with the sharp, effervescent Cookson provides the central narrative disconnect between appearances and reality: how could this old woman be the same person as the brilliant young spy giving away vital A-bomb secrets to the commies?

The guiding dichotomy established, “Red Joan” spends the rest of its 101-minute run-time showing how young Joan grappled with notions of loyalty to country versus humanity, her heart versus her head and her identity as a woman scientist at a time when it was especially hard to be both. Meanwhile, old Joan first denies everything, then fights to defend her long-ago actions against accusations of treason leveled at her by everyone from MI5 to her own son.

Based on that synopsis, “Red Joan” sounds like a thinky thriller starring a powerhouse performer and juiced with interesting things to say about politics and gender, war and peace, love and science. Not exactly, according to critics. 

While the folks at were complimentary of the “conventional yet sneakily absorbing” film — giving it three out of four stars despite being “uneven” in its toggling between past and present — the consensus from The New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian is that while the film is ably shot, admirably costumed and well acted it’s more of a snoozer than a sleeper agent. What’s worse, despite her prominence in the promotional materials, Dame Judi is deployed more as a framing device than a central dramatic force — the words “waste of talent” and “underused” crop up in more than a handful of reviews. 

“What should be breathless and urgent is instead polite and listless,” wrote The Times. “The action (if that’s the right word) moves pretty darn slowly,” according to the Post. True to form, the Guardian put it with an ample dose of British cheek: “the storytelling, like the beige-heavy cinematography that takes its cues from liver spots and tea-stained dentures, could do with a bit more colour.”

Metacritic gives “Red Joan” a 45 while the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes — “perplexingly dull” — is a pretty harsh 30 percent. Audiences, however, rate the movie a far more positive 64 percent and The Times, in a perhaps-unintentional compliment, notes “Red Joan” is rated-R “for extremely tasteful sex,” so there’s that.

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