With “Red Joan,” famed British stage director Trevor Nunn takes a wealth of compelling elements—a communist spy ring in the United Kingdom; a lone woman working for England's atomic bomb program; a love triangle between this woman, her scientist boss and a radical student—adds Dame Judi Dench in the title role, yet still manages to deliver a dull though well-appointed trip through various spy and romance tropes.
Although the nominal star, Dench appears only in the film's framing scenes as octogenarian Joan Stanley who is arrested for espionage and treason. The remainder of her performance consists almost entirely of brief moments in an interrogation room that merely serve to connect the scenes of a story told in flashback.
These flashbacks, in a script by Lindsay Shapero, based on the true story of British spy Melita Norwood, follow young, provincial Joan (Sophie Cookson) as she arrives at Cambridge in 1938, unknowingly falls in with a trio of socialist revolutionaries, then falls for handsome and charismatic agitator Leo (Tom Hughes). Recruited for work on the Tube Alloys Project--a predecessor of, and contributor to, the Manhattan Project--she becomes involved with her predictably handsome and charismatic boss, professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), at which point, Leo resurfaces, urging Joan to share nuclear secrets with Russia.
The film raises interesting concerns: the seductiveness of ideas, the accepted sexism of the period (Joan's success as a spy is attributable, in part, to her near-invisibility as a woman in a male-dominated environment), the effects of past transgressions on one's progeny, the definition of patriotism, and Joan's eventual defense—nuclear proliferation as the only reliable deterrent.
But, ultimately, “Red Joan” is not a movie of ideas. It is more concerned with the set-dressing porn of Cambridge quads and secret government labs than the passions that actually spark political and romantic revolution.