Trevor Nunn’s film about ‘granny spy’ Melita Norwood aims for The Imitation Game-style spring, but squanders its greatest acting asset
This 40s period piece tootles picturesquely along like a cold war, heterosexual versionversion of The Imitation Game, the biopic of wartime codebreaker Alan Turing. There is the same prestige Britpic furniture: clipped vowels, kindly officer-class boffins, sexy smoulderers, brilliant women patronised by pipe-smoking, pint-quaffing chaps, illicit (straight) relationships in cramped rooms with a sixpence for the meter.
Red Joan is adapted by screenwriter Lindsay Shapero from Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, and directed by Trevor Nunn; the story is inspired by the case of Melita Norwood, the scientific researcher who was in 1999 unmasked as a Soviet spy. The film gives its “Red Joan” a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a much less ideological, more mainstream-friendly approach to cold war politics. Judi Dench is Joan in old age, a dithery but lucid old lady who is suddenly brought in for questioning by Special Branch officers who have been astonished to find her name in files handed over by a recent Soviet defector.