Movie review: Red Joan

Red Joan— Running Time: 2:16 — Rating: R
With a cast of fine actors in the disturbing time slot of early Cold War, why is “Red Joan” not more absorbing? The events of the movie are historically enormous and yet they unfold here as if it was all a minor sub-plot in the Cold War. This may be partly British understatement but the major question we are left with is how this true story remained a secret until now.
The movie opens with the arrest in Britain of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), a woman in her 80s. After that, the movie unfolds in episodes between Joan and the girl she was as a young physicist (Sophie Cookson) in 1938. Young Joan was thought to have “one of the quickest minds in atomic physics.
We learn that she is a physicist with a deep belief in peace. When her son, Nick (Ben Miles) learns from his elderly mother about her role in developing the A-bomb, he freezes in anger.
Sonya (Tereza Srbova) is the Communist agent who lures Joan into helping to give the bomb to Russia. As the young physicist learns about the possible catastrophe of the bomb in the hands of one nation — America — she is terrified of control by one country. She hands that bomb to the Russians.
How could her guilt have been unknown for so many decades? When her furious son confronts her, she still defends her position that the bomb in the hands of two countries was a safeguard for world peace. As the young physicist, she figured out how to separate two isotopes that could lead to a chain reaction and believed the bomb in the hands of one country was too dangerous.
We appreciate two moving performances from Dench and Cookson as older and younger Joan but we wonder why director Trevor Nunn wraps an astonishing historical revelation in an ordinary feel. The memory of the New Mexico detonation and the erasure of Hiroshima brought my own mind back to that day when the New York Herald Tribune printed the event below the front page fold in a single column.
Even in exposure in her 80s, Joan is rooted in her dream of “an equal and just world.” She thought she was preventing war and “fighting for the living” by ensuring that possession by two rival countries could preserve the earth. Russia and the West on equal footing would avert war. That worked for decades but now the bomb is in the hands of many countries.
At movie’s end, we are told this is the true story of Malita Norwood who died at 93 and we leave the theater quietly, shaking our heads in wonder that this true story of a young female physicist could possibly have remained unknown for so long. We ask how and why this astonishing story never surfaced and why, even now, it is presented as an anecdote. Perhaps that’s why: she was a woman.
— Reviewed by Joan Ellis

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