(Release Info London schedule; April 10th, 2019, Phoenix Cinema, 52 High Road, East Finchley, 20:30 PM)
Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is a widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when, shockingly, 'The British Secret Service' places her under arrest. The charge; providing classified scientific information, including details on the building of 'The Atomic Bomb', to 'The Soviet Government' for decades. As she's interrogated, Joan relives the dramatic events that shaped her life and beliefs, her student days at 'Cambridge', where she excelled at physics while challenging deep-seated sexism; her tumultuous love affair with Leo (Tom Hughes), a dashing political radical; and the devastation of 'World War II', which inspired her to risk everything in pursuit of peace. Based on Jennie Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name, "Red Joan" vividly brings to life the conflicts, between patriotism and idealism, love and duty, courage and betrayal, of a woman who spent a lifetime being underestimated while quietly changing the course of history. Based on a true story, "Red Joan" is a small film on a huge subject.
We meet Joan Stanley when she’s in her early eighties in the year 2000. She's living a happy, uneventful retirement in suburbia. She's a woman faced with a vast moral problem, a human, political, personal and intellectual problem. Her impassioned confession is the climax of the film. But over one dramatic week she and her family’s lives are shattered when 'MI5' arrest the seemingly unremarkable pensioner and accuse her of spying on her country for 'The Russians'. She's dragged out, arrested and taken in for questioning. It turns out that she went to Cambridge with a man named Sir William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara), who has recently died and they think may be part of a 'Cambridge Spy Ring'. They believe they've found a link between Joan, William and 'The KGB'. The astonishing claims transport us from the present day back to 1930s 'Cambridge', when the young Joan (Sophie Cookson) enjoyed a passionate romance with Leo, a charismatic Russian, and the 1940s, when the gifted scientist, shocked at the devastating power of 'The Atom Bomb', vows to do what she can to make the world a better place. Young Joan is a eponymous central character in that decisive time, between being a fresher at eighteen years old and a fully-fledged scientist, approaching her thirtieth birthday.
The story, really, is the interrogation of older Joan. You meet very believable individuals at a very particular moment in time and therefore can relate to their foibles, their dreams, their yearnings. Joan first starts giving secrets to Russia while working as a secretary at the top-secret 'Tube Alloys Project', which is researching the potential development of 'The Atom Bomb'. She's sent to interviews, quite mysteriously because they're personal recommendations, to work at the 'Tube Alloys Project'. It’s made very clear to her, signing 'The Official Secrets Act', that even to be interviewed is a top-secret activity. She discovers what the project involves through her connection with her boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), and British scientists are racing to develop the science involved before 'The Germans', carrying out similar research under Hitler. A strong theme of the film is that Joan is provoked to spy not because of a 'Communist Ideology', but because she's horrified at the bombings of 'Hiroshima' and 'Nagasaki' and wants to ensure this never happens again. If all countries have the same secrets, she feels, the world will be a safer place. What's also very much evident is that the threat she posed is disregarded because she's a woman. It's a sort of theme all the way through that women at that time are in the background, unimportant, ignored, and therefore sort of shadows who can easily become involved in espionage or who knows what else.
While the film brings to life the culture of 'The Cambridge Spies', this is very much Joan’s story. She’s just a very ordinary person, living in an unremarkable house who, in her seventies was uncovered as one of 'The Cambridge Spy Ring'. She's very very good at just keeping it to herself. She has great belief in what she's doing, knew why she's doing it, and keep it to herself. Joan has a very clear line through, she’s not that interested in communism particularly, it’s just that she’s found a very gorgeous boy who's. But she actually resists all attempts to convert her. In the end what it’s about is a moral dilemma around nuclear warfare. That anything she may or may not have done is because of that, and not because of her political views. Joan is someone who's doing it for reasons of passivism, more logical reasons than idealogical. The changes that emerge in Joan’s life are reflected in the costume design. We start with young Joan in 'Cambridge', a rather naive girl with little blouses and skirts, straight out of school really. Then she gets work and that leads to her being more grown up. Joan’s character is more likeable, more empathetic. We can see her journey more, rather than as a two-dimensional communist.
To understand Joan’s motivations we must see life through her eyes, and the the young Joan is crucial to the film’s success. She's a young woman whose life experiences carry much of the film. Obviously oldee Joan bookends the film, she appears all the way through in this interrogation, but the story is with young Joan and she carries us through. She goes from naive student through to mature woman, there are a couple of relationships along the way. She’s a very different person at the end of the film than the person we meet at the beginning. It feels like the young Joan is very much in the moment, and the older Joan is very reflective, looking back. It's easy to believe that she follows Leo and starts giving all of these secrets to 'The Russians' because she’s madly in love with him. But it’s really not that, she fundamentally doesn’t believe in communism like that. It’s just to make the world a safer place. Women at that time were underestimated. It’s said in the film as well as the book. The world is on the precipice of changing and she can’t quite believe they’re there. And after 'Hiroshima', being involved so closely in that, she can’t live with that. She can’t imagine any other option than to ensure that all countries have those secrets so the world can be safer.
The structure is drawn to the richness of the moral dilemmas in the novel, and the complex nature of the story, in particular the romance between the student Joan and Leo, a handsome, edgy young Russian with whom she embarks on a passionate love affair. Everyone sees this film differently. Does Leo love Joan? And is he a man who can love? Leo is a fantastically complicated character. It’s about love, and duty, and business. Leo is the debonair, charming and just a little bit dangerous stranger who sweeps the young Joan off her feet as they embark on a passionate romance. We meet him at a time that his political idealism is really driving him as much as anything. He’s kind of unconstrained by society, and that’s always attractive. He’s genuinely free. He’s got the added enigma of youthful exuberance. He’s unapologetic, and that’s always an attractive quality. It’s potentially quite mesmerising, and usually self-destructive. Because of his political viewpoint and how strongly he gets behind that, he has a very intellectualised disregard for the individual. He lives what he preaches to a certain degree.
Max is a physics professor and young Joan’s mentor. Leo and Max vie, in ignorance of each other, for Joan’s affections, When she begins to work in top-secret research facility 'Tube Alloys', she meets Professor Max Davis. In Joan, Max is looking for an assistant and it’s important to him that they've the knowledge and skills required to even take notes, that they’re not getting lost along the way. He wants someone who's involved, engaged. They’re engaged in something together and by doing that they've a natural ease, an affinity, a shared target. That shared passion is somehow connected beyond that. There’s no agenda at first, it’s just about working and working well. The two embark on a romance, with Max having no idea that she will later begin to share his life’s work with Russian agents. Sonya (Tereza Srbova) is a fellow 'Cambridge University' student and young Joan’s confident. Sonya luxuriantly and extravagantly shows that's she's the least trustworthy friend of all. The beautiful and exotic Sonya is another key friend who Joan meets at a turbulent time in her college life. Sonya is a student, a bit older than Joan. She becomes very quickly Joan’s good friend and confidante. Sonya has a very international background and she's kind of a citizen of the world. Russian background, Jewish, grew up in Germany. She’s a glamorous, fashionable character. She’s very spontaneous, very exciting for Joan.
Nick (Ben Miles) is Joan’s son and lawyer. Joan ends up being defended by her son Nick, a 'QC' who has no knowledge of his mother’s secret life. It's unbelievably easy to relate to him, kind of instant. You put yourself into that position of suddenly, your son finding out something about you, finding out so late in life. This is his own family, the last thing that he ever even imagined. There will be a huge element of surprise maybe, to a young audience, that such a thing went on. We know of 'MI5' and 'MI6' and how vigilant they've to be. We know there must be people everywhere picking up information. But this was during a war. All the while for Nick it’s a story of great betrayal, because this is the first time he’s heard about his mother’s past. All of a sudden, in his middle age, at the peak of his career and his life, suddenly this bombshell drops and he has to reexamine his past and question everything he’s been told about his life. He has to come to terms with the fact that he has been lied to all these years. But find a way through and help his mother come out of it as best he can.
'Cambridge' is not quite a character but a significant presence in the film. Because it's set in two very different worlds and over three different time periods, it's crucial that past and present are rooted in different and authentic identities. It's not specifically about 'The Cambridge Spy Ring', it's a historically accurate piece. It's necessary that people do come out understanding more about that period in history. The film wants people to understand that these are very real moral dilemmas, and a lot of women were involved in this incredibly important work. 'Cambridge' is very important to the story. That ethos, that knowledge that there were passionate, idealistic young communists in 'Cambridge' is important to it. But almost as important is this understanding that young Joan gets into 'Newnham College'. It's completely a women’s college, so there's a segregation between the young women and men at that university, and therefore a sort of strict morality that came from that institution.
Rooney’s novel, though fictional, was inspired by the extraordinary and controversial true story of Melita Norwood, a British scientist and civil servant, who gave secrets to Russia over a period of four decades through her job at a facility researching the construction of an 'Atom Bomb'. Writing a screenplay is all about structure. You’ve got the two timelines. You’ve got the present-day timeline where you’re trying to find out whether she’s a spy or not. That gives you a fantastic framing device to keep going back into the past, to unpack the story as we go along. With the present-day timeline what you've to be wary of is it’s not the same scene happening again and again. You've to drip feed into those scenes information that changes your view of the characters. You've to introduce important back-story elements. In the present time, we see the long-term repercussions of things that have happened in the past. That’s why the two timelines are so useful.
That period of time involves highly charged sexual encounters, comedic situations, physical danger and nail-biting espionage. Shot on locations in 'Cambridge- and in and around 'London', the film attempts to tell a fundamentally true story in a fundamentally true way. It brings to life the culture of 'The Cambridge Spies', who passed secrets to 'The Russians' during 'WW2'. It's a fascinating tale of espionage laced with romance, danger, drama and moral dilemmas. Was Joan right to do what she did? The film asks that question and hopes that everybody seeing it will want to discuss, ponder and feel free to debate this issue. To understand how an ordinary young woman could get sucked into what many of us would call treason. How you can take an extremist view without being an extremist yourself? We’re giving a shape to the world that they’re actually occupying. What they're involved with is something that's going to change the course of world history. Or something that prevents the course of world history from going catastrophically bad. The fascination is that distinction of scale between something that6s small scale, up close and believable and something that in effect is vast.