This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities.
The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative [warning – plot spoilers]. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European émigré Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists.
Come the 1940s Joan is recruited to the secret war-time nuclear research project as personal secretary to project leader Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moor).
Then the USA and Britain use the new nuclear device on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan is appalled and now starts to pass on secret information via Sonia to Soviet agents. Her justification is that the Soviet Union needs equal access to this new weapon.
In the present her son Nick (Ben Miles) is now a lawyer. He is appalled when he learn of his mother’s ‘treachery’. The film ends as Joan is arrested after the release of the story. At her front door she faces the press and declares that she did indeed pass secret information to the Russians. She justifies this by saying that equal access by the Allies and Russia prevented a nuclear war. Nick, now reconciled, joins her.
The film apparently follows the book fairly closely. The author, Jennie Rooney, studied at Cambridge University. Here she encountered the story of Melita Norwood. Her narrative is heavily fictionalised and one senses it is strongly influenced by the history and myths around the Cambridge spies. Some of the characters in the film seems thinly disguised versions of characters well-known in that history.
This seems to have carried over into the film. And the politics of the latter are far removed from those of the actual Melita Norwood. No Cambridge career. A member of the British Communist Party along with her husband. She actually worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and the secrets she found passed through her office A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said:
“I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.” (Wikipedia – BBC interview in 1999).
The movie is mainstream and conventional in its form and style. The director, Trevor Nunn, found the story in the novel. But as well as seemingly following the book closely it relies on fairly standard tropes. Judi Dench, as one would expect, is excellent as the older Joan. The rest of the cast are good and the flashbacks work as drama. Visually and aurally the film has good techniques but does not generate great emotion or involvement. The plot is obviously geared towards the development and resolution of the narrative though this leads to some implausible action.
It is good to see the story told on film. The period detail is pretty good so it is fascinating [as always] to revisit this important period. But it does little for the heroine who inspired the story.
The film is entertaining enough for a cinema visit but if you are looking for the history of class struggle in Britain then you would be better with Peterloo (2018) or The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx (2017).