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Red Joan, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on May 10, 2019

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it, and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities. These two fictional versions of a real-life heroine appears to have caused some confusion. The plot synopsis on IMDB relates to the real-life Norwood and not to the character in the film.
The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European emigre Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists. They are also ex-lovers, something only revealed late in the flashbacks. Joan becomes involved with Leo. Come the 1940s Joan is recruited to the secret ‘Tube Alloys Project’ which is actually part of the war-time nuclear research. She is personal secretary to project leader Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moor) and is privy to all of the secret papers to and from the project. Leo and Sonia both urge Joan to pass on secret information for Russia, as the war-time ally is excluded from the circulation of such research. The film hardly at all uses the correct definition of the Soviet Union. Joan resists, she is prejudiced against Russia. At a screening of The Battleship Potemkin she is clearly bored by the film .
Then the USA and Britain use the new nuclear device on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan is appalled and now starts to pass on secret information via Sonia to Soviet agents. Her justification is that the Soviet Union needs equal access to this new weapon. As the flashbacks develop Leo is killed, possibly by the NKVD; and Sonia flees to Europe. Joan begins an affair with Max. When the leaks become apparent Max is suspected of the espionage and arrested. Joan blackmails a fellow communist sympathiser and secret homosexual, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), now based in the Foreign Office, to obtain Max’s release and new passports so the couple can emigrate to Australia. As they board the boat Joan confesses to Max that she was the spy.
In the present it appears that at some point Joan has returned to Britain, possibly after the death of her husband Max. Her son Nick (Ben Miles) is now a lawyer. He is appalled when he learn of his mother’s ‘treachery’. The film ends as Joan is arrested after the release of the story. At her front door she faces the press and declares that she did indeed pass secret information to the Russians. She justifies this by saying that equal access by the Allies and Russia prevented a nuclear war. Nick, now reconciled, joins her.
The film apparently follows the book fairly closely. The author, Jennie Rooney, studied at Cambridge University. Here she encountered the story of Melita Norwood. Her narrative is heavily fictionalised and one senses it is strongly influenced by the history and myths around the Cambridge spies. Some of the characters in the film seems thinly disguised versions of characters well-known in that history. This seems to have carried over into the film. And the politics of the latter are far removed from those of the actual Melita Norwood. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, commented;
“The film gives its ‘Red Joan’ a conventionally glamorous Apostle-style career in Cambridge University that Norwood didn’t have, along with a less ideological, more-mainstream approach to cold war politics.”
I was trying to work out in what sense he was using ideological? Perhaps that there is not much political dialogue or discussion. The flashbacks focus on the romances between Joan and Leo, and then between Joan and Max. Stalin gets a mention several times, I think being labelled a ‘mass murderer’ at least twice. Leo talks about the Communist International but I do not recollect many members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. William Mitchell was member but lets it drop as he becomes involved in espionage. Hitler gets a few mentions but not Trotsky. The British imperial values are present. It is clear that the ‘Tube Alloy Project’ is about an independent nuclear weapon. In one scene Max stresses the importance of the British research and autonomy whilst the listening Atlee comments approvingly. This probably relates to the strand of values embraced by Joan; equal access for Russia.


The history of Melita Norwood is strikingly different. No Cambridge career. A member of the British Communist Party along with her husband. She actually worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and the secrets she found passed through her office. A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said:
“I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.” (Wikipedia – BBC interview in 1999).
Given the conformist politics in Britain that was thought to radical for audiences. The title is certainly mainstream in that sense. It is also mainstream and conventional in its form and style. The director, Trevor Nunn, found the story in the novel. But as well as seemingly following the book closely it relies on fairly standard tropes. Judi Dench, as one would expect, is excellent as the older Joan. The rest of the cast are good and the flashbacks work as drama. Visually and aurally the film has good techniques but does not generate great emotion or involvement. The plot is obviously geared towards the development and resolution of the narrative. Max and Joan’s escape seems fatuous even given the failings of British security later. Nick’s final support of his mother lacks conviction and motivation.
It is good to see the story told on film. The period detail is pretty good so it is fascinating [as always] to revisit this important period. But it does little serve to the heroine who inspired the story. Melita may have harboured illusions about the Soviet Union that many other had already overcome. But the still lasting effects of socialist construction meant that in many ways it still pipped an advanced capitalist and colonialist state like Britain. Melita Norwood saw herself as supporting the International Working Class and its own workers’ state. By contrast ‘Red Joan’ comes across as rather liberal and lacking in developed cinematic tastes.

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