In the opening scene of Red Joan, we see an elderly woman working on her garden in a sedate middle-class British neighborhood. She is hardly the image of a dangerous criminal, but a few minutes into the movie she is arrested by the Secret Service and accused of being a spy for the KGB.
The film is loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood. Known as “granny spy,” she was arrested in 2000, in her 80s, suspect of selling British nuclear intelligence to the Soviet Union for years, starting during the Second World War. In Red Joan, the story is told between the present-day interrogation and flashbacks to Joan as a physics student at Cambridge, in the 1930s, and later working with the British team trying to develop the atomic bomb during and after World War II.
The story of Joan Stanley (played by Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson) revolves around matters of war and peace, and raises provocative questions. Among them are what makes a villain or a hero, and what the difference is between a traitor and an idealist. At first glance, these questions appear to be specifically related to the World-War and the Cold-War periods, but they are becoming relevant again.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated, we seemed to be entering a more diverse and nuanced future. Nevertheless, Red Joan somehow reminds us that we are moving back into an increasingly simplistic world, where the public discourse gravitates towards absolute categories such as socialist, fascist, patriot, traitor, authoritarianism, nationalism, some of which would have been dismissed as outdated just a few years ago. A world where formal education, critical thinking, and nuanced analyses are seen by many as things to be distrusted, and in which those who have different points of view are, almost by definition, absolutely wrong and probably ill-natured.
In Red Joan, the main character doesn’t fit perfectly into any of the categories she is assigned throughout the movie. She is a competent, young female physicist in the first half of the 20th century who, not surprisingly, is frequently assumed to be a simple secretary. As the story of her potential involvement with KGB spies and transference of secrets to the Soviet Union develops, Joan is sometimes seen as a naive girl under the spell of manipulative communists and sometimes as a traitor who hated her country.
Now and then, reality is more complicated than our generic categories. In her speech to the press at the end of the film, Joan presents a complex explanation of the moral dilemma she faced and the motivations of her acts, but who is willing to listen?
- Lalu Farias