Melita Norwood was a lifelong British civil servant who lived on a quiet London street until she was nearly 90 years old. That's when she was arrested, dubbed "Granny Spy," and described as "the most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR."
Novelist Jennie Rooney turned Norwood's real-life unmasking into a crackerjack 2014 best seller, Red Joan, taking some artistic license such as changing Melita Rooney's name to Joan Stanley. In turn, legendary stage director Trevor Nunn (Les Miserables, Nicholas Nickleby) has now turned Rooney's novel into something all-to-rare of late: a complex, whip-smart pot-boiler for the big screen. Playing the was-she-or-wasn't-she KGB spy is none other than Dame Judi Dench. Ever since attending its world premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, I've been keeping most of Joan's secrets under wraps; and before I spill all the beans, I'm happy to report that Red Joan is finally hitting North American cinemas on Friday, May 17.
"I met Judi back in 1967. We did a huge amount of stuff together," said Nunn, a former artistic director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "It's been a dream come true to be able to have Judi working on a project with me again. When she's in front of the camera... who can explain it? An extra dimension arrives."
As in the true story of Melita Norwood, Red Joan shows us law enforcement taking Joan away in handcuffs after they charge her with treason. As Joan is interrogated by MI5, she drifts into memories of events in her student life—a splendid Sophie Cookson (Roxy in the Kingsman franchise) plays young Joan. At Cambridge in the 1930s, Joan is attracted to a young Russian student, portrayed by Tom Hughes (Prince Albert in PBS's Victoria), who has escaped Nazi anti-Semitism in England. But then her world is turned upside down when World War II erupts. Due to her superior intellect, Joan secures a role in a top-secret project concerning the creation of an atomic bomb, and... well, that's about as far as I will take you here.
"I think in the simplest possible terms, this is often a small-scale story about a gigantic subject," said Nunn. "You meet very, very believable individuals at a very political moment in time, and suddenly you can relate to their foibles, their dreams, their yearnings."
Indeed, the novel and this quite impressive film have both made Joan out to be someone who did what she did for reasons of pacifism, a rationale more logical than ideological. As a result, Joan is more likeable and empathetic that she could have been. To be sure, we see her as much more than a two-dimensional communist.
Shot on locations in and around Cambridge and London, Red Joan attempts to tell a fundamentally true story in a fundamentally true fashion. Was Joan altruistic in what she did? It's certain to have you pondering and debating her fate well into the parking lot. First things first: Go see the film.