Hats off to Sophie Cookson, an actor who turns lemons into lemonade to some avail in Trevor Nunn’s tepid period drama Red Joan.
Inspired by the true story of exposed KGB spy Melita “Granny Spy” Norwood, director Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero underplay the story of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), an interrogated elderly woman whose history of assisting the Soviet Union is uncovered. Joan’s past is told through flashbacks with Sophie Cookson portraying the younger version of Joan. Dench isn’t phoning this role in (if that’s even possible for the Academy Award winner), but playing Joan doesn’t exactly test or utilize her range well. Then again, Shapero has underwritten this character’s late period by simply conceiving her as a mild-mannered senior.
Cookson, known for her role in the Kingsman franchise, gets the meatier half on the character. She’s in charge of controlling Joan’s central arc; chronicling her growth from an unjaded intellectual to a fraud seduced by mystery. Considering what she’s working with, Sophie Cookson does a marvellous job fleshing out her side of the story. I would give more credit to Nunn’s filmmaking but, compared to Cookson’s commitment, he doesn’t seem as connected to the material. Trevor Nunn comes from an extensive background in extravagant productions, primarily as a lyricist. Red Joan is as plain as a period drama can be, and I have a feeling Nunn knows this.
Red Joan may marginally satisfy history buffs who enjoy the film’s time period and spy stories in general, but it’s hard for anyone to invest in a deflating film.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie