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What we have with “Red Joan,” British theater director Trevor Nunn‘s adaptation of the inspired-by-a-true-story novel by Jennie Rooney, is a rare case of the old-lady, modern-day framing device being more fun and compelling than the actual story, or as I like to call it, a reverse-“Titanic.” The events that loosely inspired the novel (so loosely that it’s arguable whether Melita Norwood, the real-life counterpart of the eponymous Joan should be mentioned at all, let alone trundled out in Serious End Titles to give the project some legitimacy) were most extraordinary for the way they ended: with an 87-year-old Norwood confessing to decades of treason to the assembled media on the front lawn of her suburban English home. That scene appears in “Red Joan” too, with significant deviations as to the duration, nature, and motivations of her crime, and it gives Judi Dench a great showcase moment, oscillating between frail piteousness and steely self-righteousness. But that only serves to illuminate the drabness of the rest of the film: that’s right, in “Red Joan,” high-level A-bomb espionage and doomed romance somehow run a distant second in intrigue to Dench pruning her rose bush under a nosy neighbor’s eye or drinking tea from a Che Guevara mug.
Most of the time, you see, we’re not with Dench’s Joan but with Sophie Cookson, as the “Kingsman” actress plays the drippy 1930s/40s version. Cookson is appealing enough and certainly has the if-you-really-wanted-Keira-Knightley-only-5-years-younger market relatively cornered, but if she has dramatic clout or magnetism, it’s not really given a chance to show here. Young Joan, as written in Lindsay Shapero‘s cornball adaptation, has all the interiority of a marmite sandwich and spends most of the film pinging prettily, not between ideologies or governments, but between, natch, romantic interests. One can believe she grows up into Dench’s...
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