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Judi Dench

“RED JOAN” My rating: B

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

History is rarely kind to traitors. But even a Benedict Arnold has his reasons.

“Red Joan” is a heavily fictionalized version of the real-life story of the late Melita Norwood, who in the post-war years passed on Britain’s nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Written by Lindsay Shapero and directed by Trevor Nunn (yes, the world-famous stager of such massive theatrical hits as “Cats” and “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”), the film stars Dame Judi Dench as Joan Stanley, a seemingly innocuous grandmother who one day finds counterintelligence agents on her doorstep.

Interrogators present the old lady (she acts befuddled, but isn’t) with proof that a half century earlier she betrayed her country to the Russkies. The bulk of the film consists of flashbacks to Joan’s early years. In these scenes she is portrayed by Sophie Cookson, an actress who at first seems bland but ends up delivering a slow-boil performance that gets under your skin.

Naivete is young Joan’s biggest handicap.  She’s studying engineering and doing well in a mostly-male environment, but she’s also a bit backward socially. Which makes her an ideal target for a glamorous classmate, Sonya (Tereza Skrbova), a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, who cannily sucks Joan into her world of anti-authority partying.

Sonya introduces Joan to her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), an outspoken lefty who becomes the girl’s first lover. She is at first amused by his rabble-rousing oratory, but his favorable view of the Soviet Union begins to rub off on her.

Later, when Joan becomes part of the team developing an atomic bomb, Leo will wheedle and coax until Joan begins surreptitiously photographing top secret documents and passing them on to a Soviet agent.

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