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Judi Dench Is Led Astray By “Red Joan”

There are few bigger legends among actresses than Judi Dench. An Oscar winner, almost anything she chooses to be in is with your attention. Whether it’s a prestige Academy Award hopeful or a blockbuster like the James Bond franchise outings, she’s usually able to elevate the material and provide a reason to watch. However, that’s not the case here with Red Joan. This independent drama does her no favors and she’s unable to save it. This is the poorest use of Dench in some time. Boring, meandering, and constantly unsure of how to generate intrigue, it’s a tale that falters almost immediately.

The film is a drama, though that posits that anything especially dramatic occurs. The first scene is interesting, as we see Joan Stanley (Dench) arrested by British police. What could they want with a little old lady? Well, it turns out she’s long been a Communist and Soviet sympathizer, one who is now accused of selling nuclear bomb secrets to the Russians. Outed as a long term KGB spy, she’s pulled in and questioned. As we see the older Joan dealing with this, we flash back to her younger self (Sophie Cookson), as she goes through the changes that will lead to her involvement with shady folks from Moscow. If it sounds like a potentially interesting spy tale, you’re reading too much into this. Trevor Nunn directs a script by Lindsay Shapero. George Fenton composed the score, while the cinematography is by Zac Nicholson. As for the rest of the cast, supporting players here include the likes of Kevin Fuller, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, and more.

Judi Dench does what she can, but this is a dull and plodding affair, devoid of anything even remotely compelling. Her role is also fairly small, as Sophie Cookson gets far more of the screen time. As you’ll see below, that’s a major blunder to me. With indifferent writing and direction, utilizing Dench as much as possible would have been the only right move to make. Alas. Her final speech is actually pretty solid, but once again, the film goes nowhere. This movie opts to end just as things are getting a little interesting. It’s incredibly frustrating to witness this go down, especially in how it wastes Dench.

One can’t help but wonder about better versions of this movie. Red Joan makes a repeated blunder in heading back to the early time period to see the actions Dench’s younger self takes. What would have been more compelling would have been to have stayed with her older Joan and watched the full impact of finally being made to answer. That would have been a more morally ambiguous and interesting take on the material, with the added bonus of having given Dench way more to do. It’s a missed opportunity, plain and simple. That’s not the film we got, that much is clear.

Starting tomorrow, fans of Dench may want to see Red Joan, regardless of quality, just because it has their actress in it. She’s not acting that often anymore, so it could just be an event. Still, by that same token, you’d hope that the limited output would mean better efforts. She’s not bad here, but everything else is mediocre at best. There’s so little to engage with here, the flick just lays flat on its back for 100 minutes or so. Your mileage may vary, but for yours truly, this is a real misfire for all involved. If you bother to see it, make sure to keep your expectations in check…

Red Joan is in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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