Is love-struck physicist a dangerous spy by Richard Jones

RedJoanA look at Red Joan (M)

It seems incredible in this day and age that a former Soviet spy living in retirement in a beautiful London suburban street would only be taken in for questioning half-a-century after forwarding secrets to Moscow.

But that’s what happens to Joan Stanley (Dame Judi Dench) in the Trevor Nunn-directed movie inspired by true events. The real-life ‘granny spy’ on whom this espionage story is based was actually named Melita Norwood. She wasn’t unmasked as a Soviet spook until 1999. But she didn’t have the Cambridge education as depicted with Joan, nor the high-level knowledge of physics which Joan had from working in Britain’s top-secret atomic research facility.

Instead she was a secretary, not a physicist, who kept copies of secret documents before passing them on.

But like Joan Melita was pro-world balance and pro- peace, believing if the Soviets had nuclear knowledge then everything would be evened out.

Director Nunn takes us back to the late Thirties when young Joan (Sophie Cookson) was studying physics and became good friends with Sonja (Teresa Srbova) a worldly, sexy sophisticate.

Through KGB operative Sonja Joan went on to meet Leo (Tom Hughes) a Cambridge communist saboteur.

He was the regular main speaker at the student left-wing rallies and then led the singing of the Communist anthem: the Internationale.

It’s through Leo’s charisma that Joan is prompted to secretly photograph important documents before she steps up and moves on to work with Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell-Moore). There at the atomic research headquarters Joan has access to top drawer secrets and as part of the team she manages to photograph these papers with the latest mini-camera.

It was Sonja who handed her the camera birthday gift in a Cambridge tea shop and it was a gift well used throughout World War 2. Joan and the professor head off to Canada for more research in Montreal. No passenger liner for them with the U-boat threat ever present in the Atlantic in the early 1940s. No, Joan and Professor Max travel on a Royal Navy destroyer and they’re both subject to all the on-board safety drills and alarms.

On arrival in Montreal more research – and more photography – is undertaken as the Allies world’s scientists inch us ever closer to the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Of course because of her own views Joan is horrified about what eventually happens to Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and Joan is discussing what her barrister son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles) has been up to. Then there’s a knock on the door. In step MI6 and Special Branch officers headed by lead investigator (Nina Sosanya) and Joan is taken to the local nick on possible treason charges. Nick is completely floored. How could his portrait-painting and garden-loving elderly Mum be a Soviet spy.

“It’s like I don’t know you,” he rages in the interview room, once the MI6 officers have left.

Nick wants details about how his mother was influenced into stealing top secrets – and passing them on.

Joan tries to explain to him how the world was on a knife-edge in the late Thirties-early Forties and had to be levelled out. Military and atomic supremacy by one or two nations over all the others would never work, she tells him.

We’re left to ponder if Nick would ever think the same, but maybe before she passes on he’ll warm to his mother.

In one of the closing scenes he holds his mother’s hand in his own as they step out of her house and towards the waiting Special Branch limousine.

It might all be a trifle cosy and perhaps we could have seen quite a bit more of Judi Dench, but overall I found it a reasonably satisfying movie.

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