There are few words that can strike dread in a movie lover’s heart faster than these: “Inspired by a true story.”
When these words show up at the beginning of a movie, it’s a sure sign that some producer read something in the paper and thought it would make a good movie, but things went astray after that. Somewhere in the development process, the filmmakers came not to trust in what made the original story interesting. By the end, the movie is so embellished with movie clichés that it resembles the true story less than it does every other movie that’s come before.
The case study this time is “Red Joan,” which takes a kernel of an idea — a London grandmother is arrested for spying for the KGB in her younger days — and turns it into a saccharine Cold War romance, intercut with an acting legend slumming in the framing story.
The movie begins with Joan Stanley (played by Judi Dench), quietly living in London in 2000. Then the doorbell rings, and it’s Scotland Yard, MI5 and MI6, arresting her and accusing her of violating the Official Secrets Act.
The interrogation scenes, as Joan’s barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) learns of his mum’s espionage, become a framing story that takes us into Joan’s past. It starts in 1938 in Cambridge, when young Joan (played by Sophie Cookson) is an eager student in the sciences, and a fledgling socialist in love with a Russian-Jewish emigre, Leo Galich (Tom Hughes).
When World War II begins, Leo ends up in Canada, and Joan lands a job working with her professor, Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), at a research lab that is trying to develop the atomic bomb for Britain. Joan finds herself torn by her feelings for both Leo and Max. She’s also torn by her ideology: She believes the Allies should fulfill their promise of sharing tech secrets with the Russians, and as Hitler is defeated and Stalin looms as a threat, she believes giving the Russians the bomb will keep both sides from using it.
Director Trevor Nunn — whose 1996 movie version of “Twelfth Night” remains an unrivaled gem — and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero reduce what could have been an intriguing character study of misplaced idealism into a sappy, and slow-moving, historical romantic drama.
“Red Joan” also makes Joan Stanley a distressingly passive character, and neither Cookson nor Dench can do much to make her more than a doormat succumbing to romantic and political forces.
Opened April 19 in select cities; opens Friday, May 10, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex at The District (South Jordan). Rated R for brief sexuality/nudity. Running time: 101 minutes.