Inspired by true events, Red Joan (2018) makes for a relatively successful biopic, even if the milieu and furniture are so familiar that it felt like I’d already watched it before I even started. In the year 2000, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is arrested by British authorities for numerous violations of the Official Secrets Act. Joan initially protests her innocence, but in flashbacks we gradually learn the truth, as the experiences of young Joan (Sophie Cookson) play out. As a science major at Cambridge in 1938, Joan’s innocent academic life is transformed by a chance entanglement with the worldly Sonya (Teresa Srbova), who introduces her to socialist activists, including a Leo (Tom Hughes), who quickly becomes a romantic interest. Joan’s innocent sympathy with Russia’s plight during the war eventually involves her in espionage, when her science background situations her in Great Britain’s atomic bomb research.
Accomplished performances by Dench and especially Cookson carry the story, and the period trappings are well rendered by fine production values. But overall, Red Joan doesn’t really set itself apart from the many films it resembles. Too many of its key emotional beats rely on Joan’s uninteresting romantic entanglements with the charmless Leo and, later, her married scientist boss, Professor Max Davis (well played by Stephen Campbell Moore). The historical details are reasonably interesting, but the cast isn’t able to convert them into much more than a middling entertainment.