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In certain circles (and in scads of UK tabloids), Melita Norwood was known as the “granny spy.” In 1994, the aging former British civil servant was outed as a former KGB spy who passed nuclear secrets to the USSR. That came as quite a shock to her family and friends, who were likely only somewhat soothed by the government’s decision not to prosecute her because of her age.
While Trevor Nunn’s “Red Joan” isn’t an exact biographical treatment of Norwood’s story (her Russian code name was Hola), the spy drama pulls generously from both her life and the Jennie Rooney novel inspired by it. The result is a strange, bifurcated tale of love and espionage, with Judi Dench stuck in a thankless role that does nothing to capitalize on her talents. The film is worse for it.
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At least Sophie Cookson, who plays the younger version of Joan throughout the film, gets more to do by turning in a role significant enough to make audiences wonder why Dench even signed on for what amounts to a bit part. For a film dedicated to exploring a so-called “granny spy,” all the best parts of “Red Joan” follow much more traditional paths, tagging along with a wide-eyed would-be spy as she struggles with her loyalties.
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Of course, it kicks off with the granny stuff, opening with Dench doddering around a bland suburban garden just moments before her life is about to forever change. She seems like a regular grandmother, and when the fuzz come calling, she — and her neighbors — look predictably baffled.
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