Red Joan

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Red Joan
Red Joan poster.jpg
UK Theatrical release poster
Directed byTrevor Nunn
Produced byDavid Parfitt
Written byLindsay Shapero
Music byGeorge Fenton
CinematographyZac Nicholson
Edited byKristina Hetherington
Distributed byLionsgate
Release date
  • 7 September 2018 (2018-09-07) (TIFF)
  • 19 April 2019 (2019-04-19) (United Kingdom)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$9.8 million[1][2]

Red Joan is a 2018 British spy drama film, directed by Trevor Nunn, from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero. The film stars Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova and Judi Dench.

Red Joan had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September 2018 and was released on 19 April 2019, by Lionsgate in the United Kingdom.

The film is a dramatised inspiration on the story of Melita Norwood.


Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, which was itself inspired by the life of Melita Norwood.[3] Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets.[4] The materials that Norwood betrayed to the USSR hastened the pace at which the Soviets developed nuclear bomb technology.[5]

Cookson is the young Joan Smith studying physics at Cambridge. She became involved with Communists and radical politics through her friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), a German Jew.[6] Her story, which reaches as far back as 1938, is recalled in flashbacks as Joan in old age is questioned by the Special Branch.[7] The questioning reveals that Joan was not actively supporting communism, but was more concerned about "levelling the playing field" to maintain peace in the post-World War II world.



The film stars Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson, and is directed by Trevor Nunn.[3] David Parfitt is the producer, and the screenplay is by Lindsay Shapero.[8]


The film had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September 2018.[9] Shortly after, IFC Films acquired U.S. distribution rights to the film.[10] It was released in the United States and in the United Kingdom on 19 April 2019.[11][12]

Box office[edit]

Red Joan grossed $1.6 million in the United States and Canada and $8.2 million in other countries for a worldwide total of $9.8 million.[1][2]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 30%, based on 132 reviews, with an average rating of 4.96/10. The site's critics consensus reads, "A fascinating real-life story dramatized in perplexingly dull fashion, Red Joan wastes its tale's incredible intrigue – as well as the formidable talents of Judi Dench."[13] Metacritic reports a normalized score of 45 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[14] A review in The Guardian said that the film "can't disguise its mediocrity",[15] and that the film "squanders its greatest acting asset".[7] A critic in The Telegraph agreed that "Judi Dench is wasted in this absurd portrayal..."[16]


The film has a slight resemblance to the life of Melita Norwood, but there are many differences:

  • Melita studied Latin and Logic at the University College of Southampton, and dropped out. The film portrayed Joan as studying physics at Cambridge and gaining a first class degree.
  • From 1932, Melita worked as a secretary with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, long before the war started. Much of the work done by the BNF during the 1939–45 period was of vital use for the defence industry, and included solving many of the corrosion problems of seawater-cooled systems in ships. No work was ever carried out on active materials for nuclear weapons. As secretary to a GI Bailey, the Research Superintendent, she had access to the papers prepared at the BNF for presentation to the research committees and some contractors. Some of these she chose to copy to Russian intelligence. This information was made use of by them and did occasionally result in one of their research organisations publishing development work on non-ferrous metals similar to and sooner than the BNF in Britain. Bailey was on an advisory committee to Tube Alloys. According to Jeremy Bernstein, Bailey was "warned about Norwood’s political associations and was careful not to reveal anything to her."[17]
  • Towards the end of 1935, she married Hilary Nussbaum who was of Russian descent (he later changed his name to Norwood), a chemistry teacher, lifelong communist. In 1936, Melita Norwood joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The film portrays Joan as being single during war.
  • Norwood’s NKVD espionage career began in the mid-1930s as a member of the Woolwich Spy ring in London. Three of its members were arrested in January 1938 but Melita Norwood was not then detained. She was thus spying long before the war, not after the use of the bomb at Hiroshima as shown in the film.
  • The film suggests that she proposed the use of centrifuges to separate the uranium isotopes. This technique was actually proposed in 1919 and accomplished by Jesse Beams in 1934 long before any atomic bomb project.
  • KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected with some KGB archives in 1992 and named Norwood as a highly important agent. However, some have questioned the validity of evidence from the Mitrokhin archive.


  1. ^ a b "Red Joan (2018)". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Red Joan (2018)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  3. ^ a b Grater, Tom (7 September 2017). "Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson to star in Trevor Nunn's 'Red Joan' (exclusive)". Screendaily. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
  4. ^ "'Red Joan' explores real-life spy's recruitment, life and dilemma". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  5. ^ LaSalle, Mick (22 April 2019). "Review: Judi Dench shows range in 'Red Joan,' portraying a complete idiot". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  6. ^ Catsoulis, Jeannette (18 April 2019). "'Red Joan' Review: I Spy, Reluctantly". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  7. ^ a b Bradshaw, Peter (17 April 2019). "Red Joan review – Judi Dench underused in brittle defector drama". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  8. ^ "AFM: Judi Dench's 'Red Joan' Biopic Sells Internationally (Exclusive)". Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  9. ^ "Toronto: Timothee Chalamet Starrer 'Beautiful Boy,' Dan Fogelman's 'Life Itself' Among Festival Lineup". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  10. ^ Keslassy, Elsa (14 September 2018). "Judi Dench's Spy Thriller 'Red Joan' Lands at IFC Films (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  11. ^ Billington, Alex (16 January 2019). "Sophie Cookson & Judi Dench in First Trailer for Spy Drama 'Red Joan'". Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  12. ^ "Red Joan". IFC Films. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  13. ^ "Red Joan (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  14. ^ "Red Joan Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  15. ^ Hutchinson, Pamela (12 September 2018). "Red Joan review – Judi Dench's 'granny spy' brings OAP to the KGB". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  16. ^ Collin, Robbie (18 April 2019). "Red Joan, review: Judi Dench is wasted in this absurd portrayal of the Bolshevik of Bexleyheath". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  17. ^ 10 May 2019 "Incredible Untrue Events" Jeremy Bernstein, London Review of Books

External links[edit]