IFC Films

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    Red Joan has Judi Dench seemingly as the main attraction, but as pretty much every other reviewer has pointed out, that’s quite the red herring; Red Joan, after all, isn’t “starring” Judi Dench, but “featuring” her. The film is, instead, a plodding, intermittently entertaining showcase for Sophie Cookson (who you might recognize as Roxy in Kingsman) encapsulated within a cliched frame narrative. The story itself is reportedly based on the story of Melita Norwood, who passed the Soviets’ information on the West’s nuclear development. Changes have been made to consolidate the nature of Norwood’s spycraft: instead of being a secretary affiliated with Britain’s atomic weapons research, Joan Stanley is a physicist in her own right who grows disillusioned with the win-at-all-costs mentality of her fellow scientists. Sadly, Norwood’s Wikipedia page is more of a thrilling yarn than most of Red Joan

    We open with Judi Dench as Joan Stanley, the archetypal respectable English grandmother, as she’s arrested on charges of espionage. As she begins to tell the investigators her story, we jump into the meat of the film—the flashbacks, punctuated with short interruptions as present-day Joan protests her innocence, saying one thing and remembering another. At the beginning of young Joan’s tale, it’s 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, when Joan falls in with a group of charismatic Communists while at the University of Cambridge. Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), two German Jews, lead Joan into a world of dark-roomed film screenings and heated discussions of Soviet political purges, where, of course, only Joan is wise enough to question Soviet propaganda. After graduating, Joan works as a research assistant for nuclear scientist Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man who seems to immediately recognize her value, and with whom she inevitably has an affair. Joan is in the field for her love of science, and is propelled by her belief that it should be a pure and apolitical discipline, even as it’s being used to create nuclear weapons. As a result, she chooses to spy for the Soviets as a means of keeping balance—to make sure that all sides have equally destructive capacities and therefore won’t attack one another.

    There are kernels of a more thoughtful narrative that could have been told in Red Joan, if the filmmakers were committed either to following Norwood’s life more closely or committed to stressing the struggle Joan faces in reconciling her scientific mind with her humanitarian concern for people’s welfare, and for the loss of human life that these nuclear technologies could cause. After all, making Joan a scientist rather than an administrator arguably gives the character a greater sense of personal responsibility in the fate of the world—if she succeeds in making a breakthrough, it’s good for her career, but potentially catastrophic for the people on the other end of the little red launch button. Alternately, the filmmakers could have played with the nature of memory, and of storytelling, and emphasized the gap between what Joan Stanley tells her interrogators and what she actually believes, thus creating a protagonist whom we, the audience, cannot precisely pin down. There are hints of this nuance in Dench’s performance, which we can observe as we are expected to connect the passionate, heartfelt young Joan and the more reticent, truth-eliding elderly Joan, but this theme isn’t expanded upon nearly enough.

    Instead, Red Joan splits the difference, choosing to de-politicize Joan’s reasons for giving the Soviets secret information and ascribing the dirty politics of it all to Sonya and Leo, while failing to truly explore Joan’s realization that science is not, and has never been, devoid of politics. It’s through her close relationship with Leo, and his tendency towards grandiose statements about civilization, that Joan begins to understand the world as made up of people rather than rather than glorious buildings and monuments. Yet on the whole, the portrayals of Sonya and Leo, while meant to be seductive and compelling, I assume, are less of individuals than of mysterious, shifty ciphers. Sonya takes long, glamorous drags on her cigarette, always looking as though she’s internally laughing at Joan’s naiveté, while Leo alternates between passionate defenses of the Soviet Union and manipulating Joan with romantic gestures, calling her “my little comrade.” 

    The fact that they’re the only Jewish characters in the film and are the ones responsible for later cultivating Joan as a spy is even more unfortunate, because in real life, Melita Norwood was raised in a family with strong ties to leftist politics and seemed to be a committed Communist throughout her life. While the elderly Joan Stanley protests that she wasn’t a Communist—that joining Communist clubs and attending demonstrations was just the thing everyone was doing in university—Melita Norwood didn’t need to be deceived and led astray by cosmopolitan, attractive Jews with questionable approaches to morality, because Norwood already believed in the cause. But for the filmmakers of Red Joan and their resolutely black-and-white portrayal of Cold War politics, a protagonist who betrays her own country in the service of a sincerely-held ideology, rather than the total lack thereof, isn’t worth exploring.

    Top photo via IFC Films / Red Joan

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    Diane is the sort of movie that Douglas Sirk would have directed in the 1950s—a “women’s picture,” so to speak, that centers on a female character and her trials and tribulations, often in a domestic context. (A Simple Favor is another recent movie that left a similar impression on me.) While Diane’s writer-director Kent Jones works in a more muted manner than the colorful, dizzying heights of Sirk-ian melodrama, the bones of that kind of story are still there (as are retro flourishes like the slow cross-fade effect between several scenes). 

    Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a kind, elderly widow who lives to serve her community. She does what she can for others, whether it’s working in a soup kitchen or providing companionship for a cancer-stricken cousin, with gentleness and without complaint. When the power goes out in a soup kitchen, she’s the one who keeps her head and lights candles. But Diane’s drive to do good is at least partially derived from an ugly, festering place inside her, a guilty wound that will not heal. There’s also the matter of her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who struggles with drug addiction and refuses to accept her help; their conversations are shot through with frustration, resentment, passive aggression, and avoidance of the real issues lingering between them. Diane is basically counting down the days until he overdoses, and so she’ll play the role of everyone’s mother since her own son has rejected her attempts.

    If the fact that Diane has a horrible secret from her past weren’t included in the film’s basic synopsis, Diane’s downright saintly behavior would undoubtedly clue us in to the fact that she’s certainly not perfect—that the other shoe is going to drop, because no one is that good all of the time. And drop it does, but in subtle ways derived from organic conversation between characters, rather than cliched, dramatic confrontations marked by screaming and throwing things. There are confrontations about the thing that Diane did, but they’re always grounded in realistic emotion and naturalistic acting.

    Still, though, depending on her level of Brian-related or cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell)-related stress on any given day, there are moments when the facade of patience cracks—when the real Diane sneaks through to the surface. We see flashes of it in Diane’s discomfort in talking about Brian in mixed company, and her eagerness to immediately deflect the conversation away from what she sees as a failure. After innumerable visits, Donna and Diane’s camaraderie melts over a game of cards and they finally address the elephant in the room of Diane’s past transgression. Diane’s reaction is defensive and not a little petulant. “When are you gonna let me off the hook, huh?” she demands in a whisper. “You’ve been hanging this over my head for years and I just wanna know for once and for all: do you forgive me or not?” “I forgave you, but I haven’t forgotten,” Donna replies, her voice like rocks scraping together. Diane desperately wants to be be someone who didn’t hurt her cousin and her son, but all she can do is perform goodness as a kind of repentance. She can neither forgive herself, nor forget.

    When Brian goes from passive-aggressively rejecting her help to calling her profanities in a drug-induced rage, Diane shows that she can dish it out as well as take it, calling up a ferocity you wouldn’t have connected with such a gentle-seeming person. When a fellow volunteer at the soup kitchen scolds someone for taking too many helping, Diane grabs her arm and all but throws her against the wall, her disgust palpable, her outburst honestly kind of refreshing to watch. In order to hang all this kindness and generosity on herself, after all, she must have an armature of steel. 

    Mary Kay Place is receiving well-earned praise for the role, and she’s supported by a strong cast and production team. Jake Lacy is neither the jilted boyfriend of Carol nor the impossibly sweet love interest of Obvious Child: he’s far more nervy, with hurt feelings towards his mother that are easily triggered. Deirdre O’Connell is haunting and riveting in her hospital bed, relying on Diane and Agatha Christie books for company while refusing to let bygones be bygones. Andrea Martin appears as Diane’s honest, blunt friend Bobbie, serving as a source of strength for someone who is so relied upon. Kent Jones, primarily known as a film critic, clearly understands what makes a good story and how best to tell it. There’s not a false note in the movie, a point where you might think: “oh, no one actually would say that.” Jeremiah Bornfield’s melancholy score enhances the mood of the film, especially the piano pieces used towards the middle and the slightly discordant, echoing chimes that seem to serve as Diane’s musical motif. 

    Diane feels remarkably lifelike; the characters look and talk like actual people, and there’s not much plot or contrived action for them. Indeed, there are sections of the movie that sag with their slowness and lack of dialogue. Not everything can be happening all of the time, after all. In one of the film’s best scenes, when Diane goes to visit a group of relatives, they sit around the kitchen table, the conversations flowing and hiccuping around one another, coming together and breaking apart into side digressions and reactions. 

    The true high point, though, comes in a scene later in the film, when Brian (having disappeared earlier in the film), comes back clean, born again, and extremely eager to proselytize at her. Diane, Brian, his wife, and their friend sit around the table, Diane going from amusedly tense to boiling over as Brian tries to wheedle, then bully her into being “saved” before bringing up Diane’s transgression as a weapon. The rhythm of the editing and dialogue is perfect, and it’s clear that Mary Kay Place is totally invested in creating Diane as a fully-developed human character, whose faults and good qualities mingle together in unexpected ways. When Brian comes to her house at the end of the film, drunk and feeling honest, it’s the first time we’ve seen mother and son showing their true selves to one another. She’s not performatively modest or driven to screaming extremes, and he’s not trying to preach at her or guilt-trip her. Their conversation about that terrible thing Diane did in the summer of 1999 ends with a very realistic sense of catharsis, and, hopefully, a new understanding between them.

    Top photo via IFC Films / Diane

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