Young idealists, sexy communists, tweedy science nerds and purring spies wreathed in cigarette smoke all compete for attention in this overstuffed drama.
This movie is built around the figure of A-lister Dench because her part feels created just so the film can profit from her prestige and star power.
She is the older Joan and, in the course of her MI5 interrogation, her character is given to reveries - there are so many flashbacks, in fact, that one wonders why there is a need for an older Joan to be there at all.
Dench deserves better than playing a white-haired sympathygaining device shouted at by everyone, including British intelligence operatives and her son Nick (Ben Miles).
Nick is a lawyer and a stuffy member of the establishment incensed at her for having tricked him by posing as a woman of sound moral virtue when, in her youth, she enjoyed a lusty sex life with pouty radical Leo before meeting and marrying the man who would be his father.
Nick, of course, represents the tut-tutting patriarchy wagging a finger at an older woman who was something of a feminist long before such women were given that name.
If nothing else, the story at least explains and humanises the group of Cambridge intellectuals radicalised by Marxist ideals in the 1930s, who would later move into the highest echelons of the British establishment.
Theatre veteran Trevor Nunn helms the work and does what he can with the narrative structure crippled by the presence of the older Joan, but his efforts are largely wasted because of the over-busy, undercooked screenplay.
REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY
RED JOAN (M18)
101 minutes/Opens today/2 stars
The story: Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is well into retirement when MI5 bursts into her postcard-perfect English village home. They accuse her, the mother of a successful lawyer, of spying for the Soviets in a former life. In flashbacks to the 1930s, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is an undergraduate at the physics department in Cambridge when she falls under the spell of the charismatic Leo (Tom Hughes), a German refugee and avowed communist. Based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, which was inspired by the true story of British civil servant Melita Norwood.
There is the unfortunate creative choice, for example, to make Leo and fellow radical Sonya (Czech actress Tereza Srbova) exotic creatures of mystery - the final effect is that they look just cartoonishly shady, like people mimicking spies from popular films.
Their unintended silliness makes young Joan look foolish for being entranced by them, robbing her of agency when the film is desperate to prove the opposite.