Red Joan — 2 Gavels 29% Rotten Tomatoes

As long as one realizes that “inspired by true events” means “little relation to actual events,” Red Joan sits in an interesting time period. But why mess with a good story to tell fiction? Melita Norwood is described as “both the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain.” To lend a hint to her subsequent treason, her father published a newspaper that translated the works of Lenin and Trotsky. In 1935, she married a communist, and became a Russian agent in 1937. A secretary, with no physics background, she accessed material about Britain’s atomic bomb program.

Norwood, identified as a possible spy by a female MI5 agent in the late 1930’s, but ignored by a male superior, passes information to the Soviets under the code name Hola. In 1979, she receives the Order of The Red Banner from the Soviet Union. A Russian defector finally discloses her treachery in 1992. Disclosed to the public in 1999, here is a New York Times article. (Note: She doesn’t marry her boss; she doesn’t have a son.) I apologize for the long preface, but isn’t truth better than fiction? I give this movie 2 Gavels and it receives a 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating with a 61% Audience score.


Joan Stanley, physics graduate, works as a secretary in the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. Her best friend, Sonya, and cousin Leo, both have strong communist leanings. Manipulated by love and friendship, Joan first refuses to passes secrets. Once the Americans detonate the first bomb, she decides that it is not fair that then-ally Soviet Union fails to possess the same material. MI5 arrests her boss, Max, as a suspect in her treason. By this time, she wants to wed Max. But, how does she get him out of jail without disclosing her involvement?

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Judi Dench is the elder Joan Stanley, her acting mostly in a disbelieving daze that MI5 finally caught up with her in 2000. Sophie Cookson is the younger version. Given the role requires her to be the smart physicist, the manipulation seems unlikely. Stephen Campbell Moore, as Max, also is too naive given the stakes of the program. Yet, given that his character, in real life, was warned by MI5 that Joan was a possible leak, perhaps the caricature is spot on. I understand that girls fall for the bad boys, but Tom Hughes, as Leo, has warning signs all over him.

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Final Thoughts

At the end, Red Joan justifies her actions by using the “mutual self-destruction brings peace” argument. It seems her original position of protecting the nascent Communist experiment is more likely. As the picture below portrays, her “son” flip-flops from being aghast at her actions to standing by her side. Again, highly unlikely. Most of Red Joan is the interview of elder Joan by MI5 against the backdrop of flashbacks to her younger self. But, it is not clear that MI5 ever interviewed her. If we had laws governing truth in cinema, this one would be entitled “fantasized by true events.”

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