Red Joan (2018) Film Review

Red Joan is a 2018 British spy drama film, directed by Trevor Nunn, from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero. The film stars Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova and Judi Dench.

Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, inspired by the life of Melita Norwood. Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. The materials that Norwood betrayed to the USSR hastened the pace at which the Soviets developed nuclear bomb technology.

Cookson performs the young version of Joan Stanley studying physics at Cambridge. She became involved with Communists and radical politics through her friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew. Her story, which reaches as far back as 1938, is recalled in flashbacks as Joan in old age, performed by Dench, is questioned by the Special Branch. The questioning reveals that Joan was not actively supporting communism, but was more concerned about “levelling the playing field” to maintain peace in the postwar world.

Most of the film takes place during the Second World War in the offices and research facilities of the atomic researchers. There are scenes in cafes and private rooms alongside a few different interiors but ultimately it plays out like a chamber drama dealing with Joan‘s affair with Max, Leo‘s temptation, chatting with Sonya and only really picks up the pace once Joan is aware of what happened at Hiroshima which leads her to begin committing espionage. This occurs in the third act more or less meaning most of the film is bland melodrama and reiterating how sexist the era was time and time again to labour the point.

These sections are framed by current day events where Joan is taken by Special Branch on behalf of MI5 for questioning. She is put under house arrest with an ankle bracelet and eventually ends up making a press statement, in her front garden. She declares she isn’t a traitor but wanted everyone on equal footing. She wanted everyone to share the same knowledge as it was the only way to avert the horror of another world war. She concludes that she believes if they look back in history they’ll see she was right. A female journalist shouts she should be ashamed to which Nick declares she has no reason to be ashamed and that he would be acting as her legal representative.

The film was inspired by the story of Melita Norwood who, in her 80s, was unmasked as a KGB spy. She was accused of providing British atom bomb research to the Soviet Union in the mid 1940s. She admitted her guilt at a press conference held in her suburban garden. Sue to her age the British Government decided not to prosecute. Known as the ‘Granny Spy’ she died at the age of 93.

The film closes with this text on screen.

Character Based Review

Immediately you see, with even a little knowledge of the real life story it’s based on, how they’ve ‘upgraded’ the central character from a secretarial role into a more proactive scientific contributor when we are informed early on she was selected for her intellect (though her beauty is also noted). As a first class Cambridge science graduate she gets recruited (later insinuated to be via Leo‘s influence) into the secretive research towards atomic energy by the British Government even offhandedly mentioning something the male scientists overlooked thus earning the respect, and adoration, of Max the research lead. She has to keep this all relatively secret but due to connections from her student days, when she spent time with Communist sympathisers, she begins to be influenced into leaking information.

To be honest this in reality might, in the best case scenario, have barred her from even being considered for selection to work on such sensitive information from the very start so there are a lot of conveniences for this heightened fictionalised account to even take place already. More than likely she would be detained indefinitely (however in the film she blackmails a college friend, William, for some tickets to Australia to wait until the heat is off it seems to be implied before returning to Britain in her old age). In the worse case scenario she wouldn’t even be given a trial of any sort and be killed on sight once she commits her betrayal.

She says she doesn’t want the research used as a weapon and remains faithful to her country (yet induced unfaithfulness in the professor who has fallen in love with her and who she sleeps with until later he declares he is getting a divorce to be with her). This goes as far as working with Canadian/American scientists at one point until Hiroshima occurs. This is not so much a shock as an inevitability considering what the research, even on, is being discusses as capable of. She never had the option to stop this and yet then takes questionable actions by arming a foreign power – and it would be hard to argue her leaking of the self same research that enabled the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the latter not acknowledged bizarrely) by arming a foreign nation to induce a nuclear stand off.

There is a lot of talk of ‘you don’t understand how it was back then‘ in scenes with her son and yet we, an audience generations removed and knowing the consequences of such spy work, know of the Cold War paranoia induced by the arms race which is arguably still evident today with Trident and other deterrents. The film asks us not to judge her by that same argumentative logic with which she tries to silence her son – namely that, as much as he couldn’t understand war time mentalities, she couldn’t be assured that the research she leaked would lead to a stalemate, as she hoped, and not immediate utilisation of nuclear arms on non-Soviet territories.

In fact we don’t know how the war affected her personally besides what she tells her son. We only ever see or hear of her experiences in university and the research facilities. Even her time in Australia is at best paid lip service. Did she have relatives who went to fight in World War II? Relatives who were caught in the bombings? It’s as if she was an orphan with no connection to others besides her university friends. I only realised that afterwards and it strikes me as bizarre. Is the film, amongst it’s myriad of options to be interpreted, also suggesting everything we saw was a streamlined fabrication in the manner of Keyser Söze in ‘The Usual Suspects’? Honestly I’m over-reading into this film because it is so unfocused if you look at it on anything but the surface level.

Anti-war sentiments, though occurring before and after the second world war, felt like a very modern in their sensibility and portrayal here. The film tries, unsuccessfully, to stress in it’s ending that her actions were vindicated by history yet it ignores the Cold War era apparently. Often in the framing device, set in modern times, she reiterates her view that, regarding Stalin, they didn’t know about his actions at the time and stresses the relativism of other such values. The film wants her both to be seen as a victim of sexism in the era and yet striking out at that self same society in an act of morally questionable autonomy. She didn’t want atomic research to be used as a weapon so, having seen it’s utilisation as such, she opts to provide research to the Soviet Union which clearly must be understood by her as potentially arming them with weapons too.

Ultimately she was naïve and so for all the film reiterating her intelligence she proved to have little autonomy in her life. What little actions that were her own proved to enforce the archaic attitudes of the men that she was not to be trusted with ‘serious business’. It’s oddly sexist without irony how they portray her. It doesn’t truly comment on the era’s sexism so much as pay lip service to it then double down on it’s own belittling of her.

The bombing of Hiroshima single-handedly acts as the tipping point when she begins to leak information to Soviet spies. Initially via Leo, who often appears professing his love for her, and Sonya who has a child and acts as a friend of sorts.

The film tries to balance you sympathising with her struggling for respect in a man’s world, for example when a Canadian scientist keeps on about how she is going to be impressed by a tumble dryer they have, but also shows the slow progression of her sympathies towards aiding foreign powers. Therefore willingly choosing to be blind to the greater picture of world events playing out in the background (which are barely acknowledged in the film to the point you see no sign of home front efforts towards the cause even) thus endorsing those sexist values that she can’t be trusted.

There is a foreign scientist working with the Canadian scientists who is later revealed as a spy and she emulates this exact behaviour but the film seems to believe you will sympathise on no greater basis than that she is British and a woman, who we see old and frail in the framing device, when being coldly interviewed by MI5 representatives. Kierl, the scientist spy, and all foreigners are on some level to be dismissed, as they do him initially, or mildly suspicious. It’s a film very rooted in an archaic attitude and it doesn’t seem all that intentional as much as part and parcel or British dramas of a certain type for some reason when concerning middle class academics and such.

The film seems unable to settle on a single perspective of how to portray her. Is she sympathetic as a woman seeking validation for her scientific abilities in a patriarchal society? Is she a fool manipulated by others? Is she a traitor – both as a British citizen during war times but also in her personal life where she hid her actions from her family? Yet when we see her interact with other women she is often looking down on them in some way herself echoing the attitudes of the men she worked with.

Despicable for betraying her country? But, besides some dramatic shouting and frustration by her son, we don’t know how her leaks truly had consequences besides Leo‘s death and Sonya running away. Are we expected to sympathise with her when she finds Leo‘s corpse though she rejected him repeatedly and knew the consequences of what she was doing? To sympathise with her loss of her friend when she uses her discovery in Sonya‘s wardrobe to blackmail William? What of her being told the Russian research had somewhat of an unexpected boost? For which it is the professor, Max, not she who is imprisoned – and to which the film asks we sympathise with her anguish seeing him imprisoned apparently. There seems no true consequence to herself until her son refuses to represent her legally – something he later doubles back on for a somewhat forced positive ending. We even see her put the curare pin to her arm but then she is fine later. It’s as if she goes through the motions of regret but without the follow-through nor consequences of it.

Is she a martyr regarding her anti-war sentiments towards the use of nuclear weapons which would shared by later generations? Arguably yes and yet of course, because of such a ‘levelling the playing field‘ attitude to research, this all led directly into the ‘atomic age’ Cold War stand off between nations and all that involves which remains to this day with national defence budgets. The sort which often dwarfs all other spending in government budgets based on the paranoia that someone else might push the button. The sort for which retaliation would be initiated and thus mutually assured destruction the outcome wiping entire continents if not all mankind off the face of the Earth.

So instead of an open war there was, as a consequence of her actions, the suspicion of neighbours, the Red Scare of America and a long list of liberties people across the world lost. Perhaps, on some level, that was the film’s message that despite her best intentions nothing really changed. Everything is eventual and she merely sped up the Soviet Union’s nuclear research. But that would be a very favourable interpretation of her actions to the point of blindly deeming her moral on the basis of the simple logic that a protagonist is intrinsically moral. That’s the sort of naïve logic seen in propaganda.

You could, on some level, argue that due to the nuclear research race she was, by a long sting of sequential events, also partially responsible for Chenobyl. Okay that’s, of course, a stretch but it hopefully indicates how naïve her attitude was in assuming all people think like she does as if governments, let alone individuals, don’t have differing ideologies and priorities just as certain choices led to the meltdown of the reactor and there still being an exclusion zone around the site to this day. The film wants us to act like there were no negative consequences to her actions and MI5 and Special Branch are just angry she leaked information not that her actions led to empowering a foreign power which had ill intentions towards our allies if not also ourselves.

She holds true to the view expressed by Marcus Tullius Cicero that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” The film enforces this by ignoring later events prior to the interview with Special Branch, save for her discussion with her son of having lived in Australia, as if the height of the Cold War never occurred and thus painting her as somewhat a tragic heroine undeservedly to those who may be unfamiliar with the terrors of the era where people suspected their neighbours of being spies, lists were written (most famously Orwell’s) blacklisting people so they would never be allowed positions of influence or access to sensitive information and so on. All we are presented with is her good intentions and not the consequences of them.

Often, despite the film’s best effort she is a somewhat wretched figure who shows no true autonomy unless it relies on the stereotypically portrayed wiles of women such as hiding secret in a box of women’s sanitary towels knowing a young male inspector will blush out of embarrassment and let her go with it? For the most part she shifts between Leo, the professor Max she is having an affair with (who is later her husband admittedly) and the later Sir William who she blackmails for being a homosexual with photographic evidence so she can escape to Australia from her predicament in Britain at the time.

Ultimately it can be safely said this script could have been written anytime after Hiroshima as a propaganda piece and, depending on what the governing bodies wanted the message to be, to either show her as a traitor, the western perspective, or as a noble spirited comrade thinking of the world as a whole which would be the the Soviet version. Albeit, of course in the Soviet/International Communist version, glossing over the true intentions and values of the Soviet governments of those nations at the time through the rhetoric of ‘worldwide comradeship’ as is seen in much of their propaganda and in the film repeatedly echoed by Leo calling her his ‘little comrade’). People suffered for what she did and she sees only her own sense of right in the matter. Any consequences between the end of the war and her being interviewed by MI5 are never mentioned so we, I presume, can apply real world events. Certainly the film never addresses that aspect even casually.

She is initially faithful to Britain but after Hiroshima’s tragedy she began to leak information to Russian spies. In a truly fictional drama (even let us say and alternative history one where it’s all but our world with a few key differences e.g. The Man In The High Castle), where we don’t know the later events in the world of the film, this can be framed as a noble action – a truly humanitarian action even – but we live in the world where these things played out in reality time and time again due to international espionage so there were consequences unlike in the film. Espionage was very much at the forefront of popular culture (e.g. the novels of John le Carré, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, The Ipcress File, The Avengers, The Saint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And many, many, more – some grounded, some fantastical but all concerning espionage). People died for less important information than the atomic research she gave and the film cannot, despite it’s best efforts and even having an actor of Judi Dench’s ability, make us ignore this fact.

At one turn the film presents her as intelligent but at another profoundly self involved, contrary and irrational in her decisions. She was ultimately what is termed a useful idiot for the purpose of Soviet scientific, and therefore military, knowledge.

The film tries to pose her as often striving against patriarchal norms but she folds to it repeatedly despite a few momentary gestures of refusing to abide by it. She has values but seems to only act out of spite by leaking the information with no idea of the real consequences of her action. She closes with the statement she was ‘levelling the playing field‘ but that isn’t even naivety but outright, wilful, blind stupidity with no forethought of what such information enables foreign powers to do. To put it bluntly this film ultimately endorses her encapsulating the misogynistic values of men of that era. It’s shocking but watching it it’s undeniable this film holds the values of the early twentieth century not of a contemporary production. The script isn’t sure if it wants you to sympathise, destain her or to have conflicted feelings towards her and so falls back on propaganda like simplification but without the through-line of following through with the sentiment it has woven that she is truly at fault and not someone to even have pity for despite it’s desperate efforts to attempt such a tone by the end.

Both Sophie Cookson, as the young Joan, and Judi Dench, as the older Joan, do their best but the role seems so convoluted scene from scene it’s hard to really gauge how it should have been performed.

Dench arguably has the easier part as her part plays out over a few days rather than years but it then places so much weight on her to carry the production to set the context of how we view the rest of it. Do we view the rest of the film as Joan‘s biased (and somewhat falsified) account of events? Was she truly naïve? Too many questions are left for Dench to imply answers to in her performance without the aid of a better script and editing.

To further my view this film is propaganda in structure we only need see how flat the other characters are written.

Leo, for the most part portrayed as a male femme fatale clearly linked to Communists going as far as to lovingly call Joan his ‘little comrade’ seductively. The only real development he gets with when giving her a locket with a curare poisoned pin once she begins to commit espionage. Later he is is found hung in his apartment. It’s suggested it was the Russians who killed him but it could have just as easily been British Intelligence. The latter is never even humoured in passing as a possibility though it would be more logical as only the one source of information has been compromised. We find out afterwards he truly did love Joan and had a son though it’s implied he also had a similar relationship with Sonya as Joan finds a similar locket at the abandoned home of Sonya later on. Tom Hughes does his best with the one note role but ultimately it feels like a retread of his performance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria.

Max, the professor of the British effort into atomic research and later Joan‘s lover seems incredibly generic in his role in the piece. She has an affair with him, later marries him (after he decides to divorce his current wife who is never seen on screen – divorce itself being somewhat scandalous in the era) and bears him their son Nick who is a grown man in the later set parts of the film. He is apparently dead by the later part of the film though it’s never explained how though presumably it was of natural causes.

The film in it’s fractured efforts wants us to both enjoy their budding relationship yet also potentially judge it possibly. He with his clumsy confession that he chose her for her mind but she has a nice face too (later confessing to her, post-coitus, it’s at that moment when he fell in love with her), and her for not rejecting him knowing he was an already married man. In fact the adultery side of it, which was a legally permissible grounds for divorce (damaging to Max as the adulterer), is severely downplayed though it would have been the reputational ruin of both at the time. (which in part might have played a role in escaping to Australia too in hindsight).

Again her later declaration ‘you wouldn’t understand how things were back then‘ comes to bite this fictionalised narrative in the rear. Adultery would be highly immoral in the era (and not exactly something we think well of even now without extenuating circumstances).

We never learn anything about Max‘s previous wife except she was a barrier to him getting together with Joan. Yet at that point in the film they want you to like Joan, going about it almost forcefully, as the next scene is her being spoken down to by a Canadian scientist saying she would be more interested in a tumble drier they have. It almost begs us to side with Joan, having shown her sympathetically, yet due to how it’s depicted it falls on deaf ears for being so on the nose.

Do they want you to look past the surface and already begin to disassociate with her or do they want to lull you into considering this act of adultery as okay (which was deemed so immoral, to the still quite archaic legal system at the time, you could cite it as good cause for an immediate divorce and the adulterers would be a social pariahs at the time let us not forget). Why? Because they end up together in the future? The repeated phrase of Joan‘s about not understanding the time period again comes into question. Divorce was something people were judged for too though that would be a case of deeming them of ‘poor moral character for not being able to maintain a stable relationship/ as a source of gossip for others/unable to control or satisfy their partner’ rather than the far more scandalous faux pas of adultery where they would have been deemed ‘wantonly immoral in their lifestyle and a risk to be associated with if you needed to be considered of good moral character’ for employment or other matters in polite society.

The film glances over those aspects as though they didn’t matter. Certainly Max‘s previous wife would have potentially been likely to spend her life unable to marry again in that era because of him. But they’re not core to the narrative so get omitted I guess though they would add to furthering an audience’s views of Joan’s morality and consideration of how her choices affect others. A missed opportunity.

As for how Max comes across… he is a generic portrayal of a stereotypical Cambridge (or Oxford) academic of the era. Have you watched other British dramas set during World War II about the intelligence services’ efforts? Then you’ve seen him many times before with a different name whether based on a real person or fictional. They are all interchangeable in how they are portrayed. There is nothing notable about him. Even the affair is played out in the staid, emotionally mute, passionless, way the English seem to enjoy such things being portrayed for that era. (Basically as shorthand consider Lady Chatterley’s Lover in how clueless the titular character seems to be of her own needs and emotions yet desperate for intimacy). I say that but they so love seeing illicit affairs portrayed in dramas which speaks something of the national character. He is just a placeholder in the narrative. Prior to the Special Branch/MI5 interview it’s implied he is dead and likely never knew the full extent of what Joan did. When her son presses her on how much he was aware of she replies bluntly yet confusingly ‘enough’.

Unfortunately it seems Stephen Campbell Moore is also doomed to repeating his performance of another role from a different production or indeed, possibly, he repeats this performance again when portraying a character in the film adaption of Downton Abbey which was made the following year. He seems typecast into a lot of these emotionally blank upper/middle class Englishman roles. He is good at it but it must be soul crushing to be so typecast even if it does pay the bills and ensure a steady flow of incoming work offers.

Sonya is a well off university friend, of foreign origins (Russian emigre in origin I think but I’ve honestly forgotten), who later has a child and meets with Joan outside of her work at the research offices. She clearly holds sympathies for the east but it’s never clear if that does as far as betraying British values. Later in the film, when Joan visits, Sonya has already hurriedly cleared her room of both her own and her child’s possessions to evade capture by the authorities. In a wardrobe Joan finds items of Leo‘s including a photo of a boy and handwritten notes with a photo of William kissing another man. At the end it’s revealed she returned to Moscow with her child by way of Switzerland where she had contact with Leo‘s son. Another woman caught in the world of espionage but apparently one who, implied off-screen, more fits with how we imagine women of the era being involved in espionage as depicting in other media i.e. somewhat of a socialite using connections and unguarded chatter to gain information.

For the most part she serves as the only other prominent female character in the narrative. The only two other women to appear are a Special Branch/MI5 interviewer in the modern sections, who is just a functionary thus has no characterisation beyond being a stoic interviewer and a secretary/tea lady in the war time parts who, unaware of her real intentions, gives Joan a box of sanitary towels where Joan hides the information she is leaking as an investigation begins in the offices where she is working.

Tereza Srbova, a Czech actress, does her best but this role is relatively one note on paper and doesn’t really give her much space to imbue it with anything short of coming across as clearly a questionable figure in her allegiances. Nonetheless she is one of the better performers and comes across as appropriately charming yet suspicious. I have no doubt she is someone worth checking out in other roles.

To briefly digress regarding the secretary/tea lady is the only person with a British regional accent in the film and how she is interacted with implies she is somewhat stupid and looked down upon by Joan. That’s an issue with these sort of British films – everyone is middle class and that carries a worrying level of class bias with it where if you are not an RP speaking English person you are somewhat looked down upon or ‘foreign’ in the sense of being incapable of understanding events from the unquestionably virtuous and intrinsically fascinating actions of the middle classes.

The most succinct way I could describe it is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza where the middle classes can’t conceive of the working classes being capable of intelligence equal to their own. Even when doing the same things (or consuming the same media) the middle classes somehow are deemed to be appreciating it on some profound level beyond the ability for working class people to contemplate let alone achieve. To the middle classes the working class are base illogical creatures there to serve a purpose not play a role and British dramas of this sort tend to endorse that by omitting them, marginalising them or playing them up as something to be looked down upon.

Refer to my reviews of J K Rowling’s Strike adaptions for a few demeaning portrayals of working class people in contrast to their betters. As for foreigners they’re all portrayed with a certain level of contempt to varying degrees in these period dramas with the Canadians being quasi-American in their depiction here, Kierl (the spy scientist) is mocked for his manner repeatedly until he is revealed to be a spy (at which point he is mockingly praised) and we have already noted Leo and Sonya who are presented as questionable figures even before they’ve said more than a few words (though in their case it’s justified within the narrative’s context). If you’re not English, middle class or better, then your a caricature in these sort of dramas very often. ‘Stiff upper lip’ and ‘no sex we’re British’ and all that…

Nick, Joan and Max’s son, who serves as her legal representation acts as the moral adjudicator speaking on behalf of the audience. In turns angry, frustrated and despairing. He denounces her and says he will not legally represent her but apparently relents by the end – albeit off screen so we never see how nor why he changes his decision except for it being his mother. Certainly it would be a very dark mark in a legal career to have a spy as a mother and nothing would soften that stain on his reputation though it is never addressed here in aid of giving a positive ending. Joan is an old woman and therefore we should forgive her apparently despite the clear implications of her actions. They even have him shout at a reporter who shouts ‘traitor’ at her before giving an impassioned speech.

I’ve seen Ben Miles in other things and he can really pull something out of nothing with roles and he proves it again here. With a few scenes you fully appreciate the position his character is in and he brings a nuance to it which just doesn’t exist in the script. If you ever have a chance to see a recording of The Lehman Trilogy he was in then it is unquestionably amazing even if you’ve no interest in the subject because it is a powerhouse performance by Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and himself.

William Mitchell is another college friend. I honestly barely recall him during the film even when referred to by his later title Sir William. In short he is there as a narrative device to explain how Joan went to Australia with Max after his imprisonment. It seems overly convenient. Also it shows that not only are the working class near non-existent in Joan’s experience of the war but the lone upper-class person she knows is beholden to his vices of homosexuality ( illegal at the time in Britain though as a member of the upper-classes it wouldn’t make him a social pariah and at risk of attack, or even at risk of murder, but just deemed ‘eccentric’). So he also is someone the middle classes, at least through Joan’s perception, are allowed to feel superior to due to giving into his vices though she herself gave into lust by committing adultery. Later William Mitchell reveals Leo had a son and Sonya went to the boy in Switzerland before heading onto Moscow. Joan wants to go to Australia and so blackmails him with the photos she found thus leading for him to arrange for Max to be released from prison so the couple can go to Australia.

He serves as little more than a forgettable narrative device and to portray middle class people in an even more profoundly self-aggrandising light as moral arbiters of societal norms despite all that has been committed by these characters without due criticism.

Freddie Gaminara has absolutely nothing to latch onto in the role and does what he can for the brief time he is present. Part of me feels perhaps the edit was unfair to him and he might have had more of a role in the initial cut of the film as he is all but absent past the college scenes barring one offhand mention when Nick and Joan are talking in the interview room and his later blackmail scene.

Everyone else I’m sad to say play such fleeting roles in the story they barely warrant mention. They do well with what they have. That’s the best I can say. Nina Sosanya as the MI5 agent does well and is a face many may recognise f you watch a lot of British dramas. There are a lot of recognisable faces in this film.

Melita Norwood reading her statement in her garden

Brief overall review of the Film:

You’ve seen British dramas set during this era of history? Here’s one more to add to the pile. Read about the real life event it was based on or go look elsewhere.

It’s all blandly filmed with a muted colour palette. The pacing is sedate until the third act when there’s the slightest suggestion of urgency when Joan has to cover herself during an inspection and a few consequences of the espionage occur. Even then it’s glacial.

This is at best a ‘Sunday evening drama’ on TV (ITV here in Britain to be exact, e.g. Poirot, if you need context). If you’ve seen those then that’s what you are getting more or less. It’s slow moving, overly ‘chocolate box’ in presentation and doesn’t help you understand the consequences of what she did nor it’s consequences outside of her immediate (very isolated) social circle. If you want a film which will illicit the response ‘there’s a war going on you know‘ from you here it is.

It actually reminds me of dramas from decades ago involving Gregori Rasputin where the court intrigues of the Romanovs all but make the First World War a minor background note to the events occurring inside the palace.

This film comes across in much the same way with events outside Joan’s immediately social circle being little more than passing bits of dialogue by other characters. Even the turning point about Hiroshima is merely some one telling her about it casually rather than her reading a newspaper, hearing a news report on the radio or some other method.

It’s hard to make a film where a woman is both the victim and manipulator of patriarchal society without coming across as a bit of an immoral person who challenges our own moral values. However it’s even more of an achievement to do that and also make the character not illicit any sort of strong reaction whatsoever. But here it is. She had an affair, she committed espionage against her country and there are no consequences whatsoever to her personally. Oh yes she reacts to Max‘s imprisonment, to Leo‘s corpse and to Sonya‘s overnight escape – but it’s others who suffer not her. She does these things and it all passes as if it was always going to be this way it seems. Everything is eventual. Perhaps in an earlier draft it was more clear how older Joan’s views affected her perception of the past and she had come to terms with how things turned out and justified them to herself as inevitable but the film as it stands merely plays out as if the character’s themselves read the script and were merely playing their role in a drama in some poorly done meta-fictional way. But again I am trying to find something that isn’t there as it is so miserably generic.

It’s a dull, near aimless, British drama. If you’ve seen others you’ve seen this. Read about the real life events instead and you’ll find more of interest. If you like real life espionage this gives you nothing. If you like British drama this is bland so worth skipping. If you want a World War Two drama… go elsewhere… I can’t stress that strongly enough as there is absolutely nothing here.

As soon as it began with the ‘based on a true story‘ text I knew this was going to be biased but I didn’t think it would be such a generically British, middle-class centric, film. The actual events of espionage feel like they play second fiddle to the melodrama of the affair, Leo’s flirting and scenes of men being sexist toward Joan.

Apparently leaking sensitive information and blackmail is acceptable behaviour to be an anti-war quasi-feminist. The Cold War apparently is something you can forget happened when making a spy seem virtuous. It’s actually quite insulting to what people actually underwent for just being accused of it let alone found guilty. Perhaps that was the point – Melita Norwood never faced consequences for her actions as the British government decided she was too old to undergo it and thus this fictional version is never truly held to account for anything she did in her life. She was a puppet in others games even when she believed she was doing what she wanted and had no accountability.

It couldn’t be more demeaning to women if it tried despite how it probably hoped people would interpret it. The moments where Clement Attlee jokes she is in charge of making the tea at a meeting about atomic fusion, a Canadian scientist insists on how a tumble drier will impress her and other moments only serve as gilding the lily of what is already at it’s heart a deeply demeaning narrative. The views of men from a past generation we can view in context but it seems the narrative itself seeks to rob her of any sense of autonomy by making her a mere pawn in the agendas of others due to her emotional response to the bombing of Hiroshima to justify her espionage activities (which barely last 15 minute of the run time it seemed despite being the marketing focus of the marketing) or by accentuating her physical frailty and moral powerlessness in old age.

Earlier I mentioned how the main character seems to reflect Marcus Tullius Cicero’s quote that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” I wish the film had actually discussed that more by addressing the Cold War era but it didn’t and thus deflates the entire core of this film. How can we evaluate the character of Joan when over half a century of her life and events in the world as a consequence of her espionage are ignored? It’s a bizarre decision even if it was only addressed in passing to make her acknowledge what her choices led to. It’s frustrating if not infuriating.

It’s a plodding British historical drama filled with worthy English actors fussing about their middle class affairs and underplaying the historical aspects of the narrative to the point it feels like it’s in contempt of them. British historical dramas of this sort: you’ve seen one – you’ve seen them all. Embarrassingly it is true here…

Tl;dr

”What if they took a British propaganda script, written in the early Cold War era, and made a mildly propagandist melodrama film today with no alterations to the dialogue?” – you get this more or less.

Yes, even with the older Joan parts. The ‘script’ wouldn’t be aware of the events of the Cold War and it’s universal sense of paranoia at that stage. Those scenes would be presented as her ‘some time in the future’ having been a woefully naive ‘useful idiot‘ puppet of the Soviets (except here they tried to make her somewhat sympathetic and fail).

It’s embarrassingly bland in presentation and generic in it’s narrative. There is little actual espionage despite what the marketing suggests. Go elsewhere. Whatever makes you interested in this go elsewhere. No really. On your head be it unless you are suffering insomnia and want a cure!

Escapes (1986) : Horror Anthology Film Review

An anthology of five tales of terror, each originally produced for video. The titles are “A Little Fishy” (a.k.a. ”Something’s Fishy”), “Coffee Break”, “Who’s There”, “Jonah’s Dream” and “Think Twice”. There is also a framing story called “Hall of Faces” featuring Vincent Price.

Framing story – part 1: ‘Hall of Faces’

A young man, named Matt Wilson, gets a VHS in the mail delivered to him . He didn’t order it but decides to watch once home for the evening. It has Vincent Price in a hallway of mannequins embedded in the wall who introduces the selection of stories. Imagine if the candelabras from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast were placed in a 1980s music video based on German Expressionist cinema with neon lighting. After a slow pan through the curved corridor is Vincent Price waiting for his cue to begin his monologue. That’s the first part of the framing device called ‘Hall of Faces’. We go on to watch the various stories and return to the young man’s motel like home at the end to conclude the film.

Story 1 – ‘A Little Fishy’

A fisherman goes fishing on a riverbank but ironically gets fished himself via a red apple he finds and decides to bite into on the river bank. The line pulls on the hook in his mouth and he is dragged into the water. That’s it. It’s the first story and thus a ‘mood setter’ I suppose… or a one note bad joke made into a short film.

Story 2 – ‘Coffee Break’

An obnoxious young delivery driver asks and old man for directions and promises him he will drive slow, enjoy the scenery and stop for a coffee at a diner. However he drives past it deliberately and yet finds himself in a loop until he finally stops at the diner to ask for directions.

The server is the same old man who gave him directions previously and who goes on to offer him a cup of coffee. The old man tells him he didn’t keep his promise so now he has all the time in the world to enjoy his coffee along with the other occupants of the diner.

The young driver tries to escape in his vehicle but ends up back at the diner again where the patrons laugh at him as the man comes outside to offer him coffee again. The young man ends up stuck there forever drinking coffee.

Story 3 – ‘Who’s There?’

Experimental ‘apes’ escape a lab, watch some kids play football and stalk an overweight jogger through a forest. One of them runs around wearing the guy’s tracksuit jacket which he abandons at one point. A chase ensues through the forest as the jogger is pursued by the largest of the creatures. As soon as it catches up to him it says in clear English ‘tag, you’re it’ and they all run away from the man laughing like excited children. To them it wasn’t a terrifying pursuit but part of playing a fun game of tag.

Story 4 – ‘Jonah’s Dream’

An old female gold prospector finds a piece of gold and goes into town to sell it. In town people greet her as Mrs Tucker and comment on her continuing efforts to find gold up in the mountain long after her husband passed away (just because it was his dream it is later revealed). The shop owner tells her people were worried about her but he can’t give her much for what she has brought on that day as she hasn’t paid her last bill yet. He reiterates he can’t give her anything and advises her to sell the mountain and move into town. She says it was her husband Jonah’s dream and refuses to take his advise. The shop owner says they’re there if she needs them.

She is well liked by the community and even gives one of the kids outside an Indian arrow head she found when she was prospecting before heading back to the mountain. The men outside ask the shop owner how much in value she brought in and are told $92. (Bear in mind that’s $92 in the 1980s so he probably could have given her something and kept the excess value for himself as interest). They agree she has gold fever like Jonah did.

She goes and puts flowers on Jonah’s grave. Later, in front of the fire, she reflects on what people have been saying and looks at an old cameo/portrait of Jonah remembering him panning for gold and how happy he was to find gold. The kettle whistles.

There is an explosion outside and the roof of her barn has been caved in. With her shotgun ready she inspects inside. There’s a glowing spaceship emitting noises. Eventually she removes the debris from it at which point it does a ‘Simon says’ toy sequencing of light and opens. There is lots of smoke then another bang which presumably knocks her out.

Mrs Tucker wakes up in the morning lying on the ground. The barn is flattened and there is no sign on the space ship now. On the ground are a number of dull rocks which are apparently gold. She calls out to Jonah that they had been sitting on the gold all that time because they had built their barn and house on top of it.

Story 5 – ‘Think Twice’

A man runs through some city streets. The sort which only existed in 1980s cinema. He mugs someone and looks through the bag he took for anything of value. A tramp with a shopping cart rolls by. He unfurls a cloth to reveal a gem stone he is carrying. He holds it close to his face and it begins to glow red.

The criminal mugs the tramp who begs him not to take his gem as it will be of no use to him. The mugger runs away past another homeless guy but then gets run over by a man in a suit who is drink driving through another alleyway. The driver gets out and inspects the blood on his car’s hood then picks up the gem which begins to glow in his hand. He drops it and gets back in his car.

The gem now glows blue as the tramp picks it up and smiles before breathing on it to make it glow red again. It brings the mugger back to life and, as the tramp watches, a police car appears with armed officers telling the mugger to drop the knife and purse he is holding. The mugger is arrested and looks on as he is taken away by the police. The tramp returns to walking the streets with his shopping cart happy with his glowing gem.

Framing story – part 2: ‘Hall of Faces’

The young man who has been watching the VHS listens to Vincent Price’s host giving a wrap up about the six stories. Except there have only been five. In a twist the last one involves the young man and addresses him by his name thus breaking the fourth wall. He tries to stop the tape and attempts to remove it to the denouncement of the host. As he runs through his house the characters of the stories on the VHS appear and crowd around him as the host laughs maniacally. Then the young man wakes up. On the back of the VHS case he sees it says starring Vincent Price and introducing Matt Wilson i.e. himself… then, in one final twist, Vincent Price dressed as a mail man laughs maniacally at him once more implying it was he who brought the VHS here in the first place.

The end…

The ‘A Little Fishy’ segment of the film.

Overall Anthology Review

When you compare this anthology’s host with figures like Tales from the Crypts’ Crypt Keeper, Brazil’s Zé do Caixão (a.k.a. Coffin Joe), John Carpenter’s Undead Mortician in the 1993 anthology film Body Bags and many other such anthology hosting figures… well the host of this anthology can be sincerely summed up as ‘ooh look we hired Vincent Price which is worth the price of admission alone’. No it isn’t. He is in about 2 minutes of it at most and only to rattle off an opening monologue, a few seconds of dialogue and laugh at the conclusion. He is the only thing that would draw people’s attention to this anthology. Oh but, in fairness, maybe you were looking up anthology horror films like me – that’s the other reason. Heads up anything other horror anthology will seem better after you see this including “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion” the seventh vignette of 2012’s anthology film The ABCs of Death where a Nazi fox furry tortures a British bulldog furry. No really. At least that’s memorable… and mildly traumatic for the wrong reasons.

There is no set tone for the Escapes anthology. Some stories are meant to be funny, others are karmic retribution but there always seems a tone where you are meant to be taking them more seriously that the writing itself suggests. This is ‘fun’ horror and better aimed at children really but, at the time it was made, would have probably been classified as too scary for them by censors. I seriously doubt children nowadays would react to this with anything other than boredom.

‘A Little Fishy’ really seems like a student film or what some friends with a film camera would make as a fun project over the space of a day or two once summer. It’s like a Yakov Smirnoff joke: ‘In Russia you don’t fish fish – the fish fish you!’ There’s not much to say. It’s a one note short story to set the tone but it gives you the impression what you will be seeing are karmic stories where people get their comeuppance. Arguably they do albeit some end on a positive note.

‘Coffee Break’ really stands out as the best section in concept and execution. It is tonally quite close to ‘Creepshow’ or ‘Body Bags’. I might also say an episode of ‘Tales from the Darkside’ even might be the best comparison but with a heavy metal soundtrack. Lots of long shots of the van driving along roads are used to pad the run time though. Lots of heavy metal which reminded me of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. The coffee guy and the delivery driver both play off each other well but it’s a little too drawn out sadly. In fact most of these stories feel bloated by about 20% each in order to reach the run time when they would have a stronger impact being more concise.

‘Who’s There?’ definitely could have been the basis for a script on something like ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ or ‘Goosebumps’. It’s an amusing little piece and in a more light hearted, child marketed, anthology it would have fared far better and possibly become a fondly remembered piece. As it is it just feels like another mismatched piece in a collection of stories that are tonally uncoordinated. If the low budget creature costumes, with their weird little ear stalks, were not enough then the fact one wears the discarded jogging jacket correctly should have tipped you off this is a lighter story. Honestly the application of the make-up on the main creature is well done for the era. It’s a nice simple concept with an amusing little pay off. Like most of these it needed tightening up choosing whether to play up either the humour or the threat through a greater sense of tension. Initially it seems to want to play to the latter but the resolution completely deflates that aspect.

‘Jonah’s Dream’ is the most drawn out and weak overall. It doesn’t really go anywhere for at least ten minutes then pushes a spaceship/meteor scene in at the end before the main character wakes up after encountering the spaceship. Maybe the encounter itself was a dream but there is no way you could interpret it that way from what I recall. In better hands it would have been a good one person monologue piece but instead seemed to be where money was wasted instead of tightening up aspects of the other stories. It is easy to see it being revised as a short drama where she discovers the gold under the house without the alien ship aspect of the story which feels stuck on to force it as part of this anthology. There is a lot of build up in this story with a relatively dull conclusion. The community gets fully fleshed out and it seems sort of redundant unless it was to get friends of the production and their children cameos for whatever reason. Really the important parts could all have been done by the one actress as Mrs Tucker with a flashback sequence featuring her husband (and even then it could be her recounting her words to herself so even that would be unnecessary). The whole exchange in the shop merely served as meaningless exposition. As part of the anthology series Amazing Stories it would be deemed a weaker episode probably.

‘Think Twice’ is well made but the core aspect of what exactly the ability is of the crystal makes it hard to follow. It grants wishes? It is an extension of the homeless man? It’s never clear except it leads to the defeat of the mugger and the homeless man is very attached to it. As long as you can get past that this is relatively good but unsatisfying due to the ‘rules’ or context of it not being explained or at least contextualised for the audience to reach a satisfying understanding. What the crystal is exactly isn’t explained so there is a distinct frustration regarding this story. What are the limits of the item? Really something else should have been used despite, presumably, a glowing, colour changing, crystal serving as a unique aesthetic for the film’s promotional material. What is the homeless man’s connection to the gem? If they revealed he was an alien (or something as convoluted) it would have made more sense to explain the crystal rather than leave it a mystery why the homeless man claims it will be of no use to the mugger and the things it apparently does. This seems like a concept meant for Creep Show.

The framing device ‘Hall of Faces’ is weak. Honestly it feels tacked on with little thought. Most framing stories are relatively weaker than the main stories inevitably but at least they contribute a fitting setting for, and reinforce the themes of, the other stories being told. V/H/S, despite also having it’s framing device criticised, at least has a little more impact than ‘old man laughing at you’. Tales from the Crypt (1972) reveals all the story protagonists who gathered had died in their individual recounted stories and were destined for hell together, Trick ’r Treat (2007) has Sam wander though each of the stories, Southbound (2015) has the separate stories occur along the same stretch of road and there are many other examples of how to construct a cohesive anthology.

His inclusion in the framing story is just an excuse to plaster Vincent Price’s face on the cover of the VHS in order to sell it. Okay, it’s a pretty standard way to wrap up an anthology and connect the stories (though if you paid attention some share actors between each other). It reminded me a bit of the final story in season 4 of Yamishibai where the storyteller is revealed to have brought all the stories to life (oddly enough that isn’t as big a spoiler as you might think as the introduction of each episode in the series features a masked storyteller). Framing stories tend to be hard to make effective though there are some from the 70s (and those noted above) which achieved it but they had a stronger thematic through-line between stories so it already felt connected even without the framing story to create a cohesion between them.

There’s nothing to draw you to this unless you feel like riffing on it with friends or having an example of how cheesy some 1980s and early 90s horror anthologies could be. It’s B movie horror stories in the bad sense. As is always said of anthologies they’re only as strong as their weakest link and the overly drawn out panning shots used throughout instead of establishing scenes just seem there to pad out the running the time. Having read the above you’ll imagine something better than what was depicted on screen. I looked up the IMDB entry and it sees this was a vanity piece for David Steensland who directed, wrote and produced it. Who was he? Where did he go after this project? Was it a pseudonym used by an established person in the industry? We might never know…

The entire film is on YouTube should you want to watch it. It’s not worth it to be honest. ‘Coffee Break’ is classic cheesy 80s horror. The ‘Who’s there?’ one is a funny story to tell a child to amuse them (no need to watch it – any embellishment you make will be an improvement). ‘Think Twice’ is flawed but could have been good if what the gem was was at least alluded to and honestly the rest are rubbish.

There is a version of Escapes which runs 16 minutes longer but I don’t know what that adds to it as this is already a bloated film. I don’t think there is an omitted story just more overly long panning shots I presume. If you’ve seen the longer version what extra is in that version?

Tl;dr

For anyone interested I would rank the stories, best to worse, as: Coffee Break, Who’s There?, Think Twice, A Little Fishy, Jonah’s Dream, Hall of Faces.

Skip it or go check it out on double speed on YouTube if you must check it out. It’s forgettable and poorly made. More a fantasy than horror anthology. I bet you only came here because there’s so little information about it. Admit it – you did. If you liked it, besides due to rose tinted nostalgia from seeing it many years ago, tell me and explain why.

A Night Out by Dannie Abse

Friends recommended the new Polish film
at the Academy in Oxford Street.
So we joined the ever melancholy queue
of cinemas. A wind blew faint suggestions
of rain towards us, and an accordion.
Later, uneasy, in the velvet dark
we peered through the cut-out oblong window
at the spotlit drama of our nightmares:
images of Auschwitz almost authentic,
the human obscenity in close-up.
Certainly we could imagine the stench.

Resenting it, we forgot the barbed wire
was but a prop, and could not scratch the eye:
those striped victims merely actors like us.
We saw the Camp orchestra assembled,
we heard the solemn gaiety of Bach,
scored by the loud arrival of an engine,
its impotent cry, and its guttural trucks.
We watched, as we munched milk chocolate,
trustful children, no older than our own,
strolling into the chambers without fuss,
whilst smoke, black and curly, oozed from chimneys.


by Dannie Abse
from A Small Desperation
(1968)

Interesting fact: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

The Film of God by R.S. Thomas

Sound, too? The recorder
that picks up everything picked
up nothing but the natural
background. What language
does the god speak? And the camera's
lens, as sensitive to
an absence as to a presence,
saw what? What is the colour
of his thought?
It was blank, then,
the screen, as far as he
was concerned? It was a bare
landscape and harsh, and geological
its time. But the rock was
bright, the illuminated manuscript
of the lichen. And a shadow,
as we watched, fell, as though
of an unseen writer bending over
his work.
It was not cloud
because it was not cold,
and dark only from the candlepower
behind it. And we waited
for it to move, silently
as the spool turned, waited
for the figure that cast it
to come into view for us to
identify it, and it
didn't and we are still waiting.


By R.S. Thomas
from Frequencies (1978)

Neighbours by Mike Jenkins

Yesterday, the children made the street

into a stadium; their cat

a docile audience. As they cheered

a score it seemed there was a camera

in the sky to record their elation.

Men polished cars, like soldiers

getting ready for an inspection.

Women, of course, were banished

from daylight: the smells of roasts merging

like the car-wash channels joining.

Today, two horses trespass over boundaries

of content; barebacked, as if they’d just

thrown off the saddle of some film.

They hoof up lawns – brown patches like tea-stains.

A woman in an apron tries to sweep away

the stallion, his penis wagging back at her broom.

I swop smiles with an Indian woman, door to door.

These neighbours bring us out from our burrows –

the stampede of light watering our eyes.

 

By Mike Jenkins

from Empire of Smoke