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Red Joan

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Red Joan Movie Poster Image
Slow-burning WWII spy drama raises thoughtful questions.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 101 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Explores idea of whether noble/selfless goals justify illegal/morally complex actions. Joan is moved to participate in espionage by the dropping of nuclear bombs in Japan. Themes of honor, compassion, and courage are clear, though not every viewer will agree that Joan's actions were reasonable/justified.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Joan is a strong, principled person; though viewers may not agree with her principles, it's hard to disagree that her convictions arise from them. However, she's also defined largely by her relationship with various men, and she's often treated with disdain/scorn by male characters. Many characters have dual motives: Both Sonya and Leo seem to be Joan's friends but frequently press her to do things she's uncomfortable with. Family bonds in the Stanley family are strong, though tested by difficult times.

Violence

Nuclear weapons are at the heart of Joan's spying; viewers hear their power discussed, see news footage of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, with brief visuals of people injured by the radiation. One character slaps another during an emotional conversation. A character is given a poison amulet; it's implied that she should use it to kill herself if she's caught. A character discovers a loved one hanging by his neck, dead. She assumes he's died by suicide but learns later that he may have been murdered. Viewers see his blank, dead face, his body hanging in silhouette. 

Sex

Characters kiss passionately before falling into bed or dashing behind closed doors; in one scene, characters have sex with motions and moaning -- a man is shown shirtless, and then the characters are seemingly nude in bed together (no graphic nudity). Illicit and extramarital affairs play a part in the story.

Language

Language is infrequent but includes "damn," "hell." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many characters smoke; adults go to bars and drink at dinners and parties, but no one acts drunk. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Red Joan is a fact-based drama about an elderly British woman (Judi Dench) who's arrested for spying for the KGB during World War II. The development of the atomic bomb is at the center of the story; characters discuss what the power to make such a bomb means, and one watches news footage about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (images of cities in ruins and pale, hairless people suffering radiation poisoning). There are also many scenes that deal with suicide, including one in which one character finds another hanging by his neck: His body is seen in silhouette, and the camera lingers on his dead face. Language is infrequent and mild ("damn," "hell"), and sexuality is muted: Most sex is represented by kissing and the removal of a layer of clothing. In one scene, a couple has sex -- with motions and movement -- but viewers only see the man's bare chest and then the couple in bed, seemingly nude. A photo shows two men kissing. Many characters smoke (accurate for the era); they also drink at dinner or in pubs, but no one acts drunk. A strong, principled woman is the main character, but viewers may disagree with her principles as well as her actions. Nonetheless, themes of compassion and courage are clear, and, for many, Joan will be a role model despite her (unpopular in democratic countries) political leanings.

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What's the story?

Based on Jennie Rooney's same-named novel (and on the real-life case of "granny spy" Melita Norwood), RED JOAN stars Judi Dench as Joan Stanley, an elderly woman accused of selling British nuclear intelligence to the USSR during World War II. Could this sedate grandmotherly type really be a longtime KGB spy? As Joan remembers the decades-old events that led to her arrest, the film goes back in time to the 1940s, when the idealistic young Joan (Sophie Cookson) met glamorous socialists Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) at her university, sending her life in an unexpected direction. 

Is it any good?

This drama is slow-burning enough to get mistaken for boring, but patient viewers will find an intriguing, unique dilemma at the center of this ripped-from-the-headlines spy story. It's easy enough to condemn Joan (and the woman who inspired her character, Melita Norwood) at face value -- she is, after all, a British citizen who gave her country's wartime enemy the intelligence it needed to make an atomic bomb. But the more we learn about Joan, the more sympathetic she becomes. Deeply committed to an idealistic strain of communism, her motive is only to level the worldwide playing field. If everyone knows how to make a bomb, she reasons, everyone will be too afraid of reprisal to actually detonate one. 

Playing a woman whose fiery politics have cooled after many decades of living an unremarkable life, Dench, as always, is impossible to look away from. But her scenes mostly take place in gray interrogation rooms or around her suburban house. Cookson, meanwhile -- beautifully dressed in perfect period-correct costumes -- is given much more to do: She holds signs at political rallies, learns how to evade fellow spies (go into a "lady shop," because "no man will follow you in there"), and has passionate affairs with desperate men. Yes, it's all a lot quieter than most spy movies; there's nary a chase or a shoot-out, and one of the more dramatic moments of Red Joan involves a mink coat. Instead of explosions, there are conversations. And instead of murders, there are betrayals. But instead of easy answers, there are complex, nuanced questions, and a treat for a certain type of film watcher. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about people whose work involves breaking traditional rules. How can you tell when you stop being one of the "good guys"? Is it OK to break rules if it's done in aid of a greater good?

  • Do the characters' jobs and lives look like fun? Why or why not? Would you like to be a spy? Does Red Joan make spying look attractive? Scary? Boring?

  • How do the characters in Red Joan demonstrate compassion and courage? Why are these important character strengths?

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