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Arts & Culture

'Red Joan' Inspired By Real Life Spy Case

Judi Dench stars as Joan Stanley, an elderly woman accused of having been a spy in the film "Red Joan."
IFC
Judi Dench stars as Joan Stanley, an elderly woman accused of having been a spy in the film "Red Joan."

'Granny Spy' story becomes film for Judi Dench

Companion viewing

"Another Country" (1984)

"Skyfall" (2012)

"Imitation Game" (2014)

The case of a Soviet agent known as the “granny spy” has become the inspiration for a new film called "Red Joan" starring Judi Dench.

Having Dench, the actress who gave a satisfying sex change to the role of MI6's M in the James Bond reboot, be accused by the British government of being a Soviet spy in the movie "Red Joan" creates a weird kind of pop culture irony.

The film is inspired by the case of British civil servant and KGB intelligence source Melita Norwood. Norwood was accused of being a spy in 1999 when she was in her 80s and that earned her the name of "granny spy." But the work she did for the Soviets began in the 1930s and continued for four decades.

Screenwriter Lindsay Shapero was not satisfied with the details of the real case but decided to just use the basics of the case, most notably an elderly woman accused of having been a spy decades earlier, as the foundation for "Red Joan."

The film opens with the elderly Joan Stanley (Dench) being arrested and denying all accusations of having been a communist or a spy. But as the government begins to lay out its case, we get flashbacks of Joan in her days at university and working as a civil servant and we see that she may have been something very different than the quaint old lady tending to her garden.

Dench provides the film with its best moments. Initially seeming frail and confused but slowly coming round to an admission of who she was and why she did what she did. But because the film's told mostly through flashbacks, Dench is only in part of the film. Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan and while she is good, Dench is much more fun and interesting to watch onscreen.

What the film does well is in considering the reasons one might give up government secrets and in showing how society's underestimation of what women are capable of allowed her to go undetected for decades. But the film’s fictional character of Joan Stanley ultimately proves to be less interesting and complex than her real counterpart of Melita Norwood.

The film goes out of its way to insist Joan was not a communist and that her love for a man was key in swaying her initial sympathies. But Norwood was an admitted communist and according to The Guardian obituary was known for buying multiple copies of the Communist newspaper to stuff in her neighbors' mailboxes.

"Red Joan" has an inherently interesting story but Nunn and Shapero only hint at the fresh angles into their espionage tale.

'Red Joan' Inspired By Real Life Spy Case
The case of a Soviet agent known as the “granny spy” has become the inspiration for a new film called "Red Joan" starring Judi Dench. You can hear this story and other local news every morning by subscribing to San Diego News Matters, KPBS’ daily news podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.