Red Joan — a different spy story

Melita Norwood.

Red Joan
Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes & Tereza Srbova
Directed by Trevor Nunn
In cinemas

Red Joan is loosely based on the spying activities of British civil servant Melita Norwood, who was nearly 90 years old when she was exposed as a Soviet agent.

Norwood gave a famous press conference in garden of her very conventional London home in which she said that she spied “to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service”.

Judy Dench gives a sterling performance as the aging, middle-class spy, and the tale is told in flash backs as she reviews her life. The rest of the cast is also top-notch.

There is a balance of drama and tension without exaggeration. The film shows why the 1930s Cambridge generation of star students became Communists as they witnessed fascism and mass unemployment. 

The crimes of Stalinism are exposed, which gives poignancy to the choices being made. However, what comes out of the mouths of the young Communists sounds leaden. It seems that the scriptwriters just can’t get their heads around the ideas.

The plot weaves love, political commitment and a spy story with a recurring thread of women’s rights. This is not your normal spy caper.

Melita Norwood’s explanation of her spying activities can be seen on YouTube.