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TIFF 2018: On Her Comrade's Secret Service


Dame Judi Dench is Red Joan - TIFF
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  • Dame Judi Dench is Red Joan
She was called "Granny Spy," and some described her as "the most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR." Her real name was Melita Norwood. Arrested by British intelligence in 1999, her exploits were the inspiration of the bestseller Red Joan in 2004, which has been adapted into what is certain to be a hit film starring Dame Judi Dench. Directed by another knighted British subject, Sir Trevor Nunn, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Red Joan premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival and should open in North American theaters at the height of award season.

Following her arrest, Joan/Melita is carted off to a windowless room where, through a seemingly endless series of interrogations, she is confronted with her past. Indeed, as a young physics student at Cambridge University, Joan/Melita fell madly in love with a Russian sympathizer. But that was the 1930s, when Communist Party gatherings were common in the United Kingdom and United States. Because of her scholarship, Joan/Melita was recruited by the U.K. government to assist them during World War II in their efforts to split the atom. But her undercover lover convinces Joan/Melita to share the information with the Russians, in order to fashion a "more-even playing field" as a post-war planet entered the age of the A-bomb. Allegiances are blurred and her lies pile up. A half-century later, when her crimes are finally revealed, Joan/Melita insisted that she did what she did for her love of Britain, not Russia. It's interesting to note that, due to her age, the British government decided not to prosecute. Joan/Melita died in 2005, and in 2014 new evidence indicated that she was much more highly valued by the KGB than first believed.

Like any good potboiler, Red Joan has a surprise twist or two, plenty of tension and a bit of sex. And any time Dame Judi is on screen, you know it's got to be good. Her co-stars rise to the challenge as well, including Sophie Cookson (so good as secret agent Roxy in the Kingsman franchise) who plays young Joan, and Tom Hughes (currently co-starring as Prince Albert in PBS's Victoria) as Joan's lover.