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The new Judy Dench film Red Joan is a contribution to the recent uptick of Russian-oriented thrillers, but one that promises a little more depth.
As we await a new James Bond and avoid more Missions Impossible, the espionage genre trundles along as it always has – a sounding board for America’s paranoia and unrest. Never is the secret agent onscreen simply there for your entertainment; they represent the policy and politics of the current national id.
Even if the gallant spy seducing and shooting his way into the stronghold feels hackneyed and outdated today, they are still quite essential to our cultural play-acting, especially in an age when most military offensives are typically clandestine, and almost any public place bears some potential as a combat zone.
Villainous masterminds, for their part, have been perfected since the early forties into a surprisingly uniform archetype, but paying close attention to the differences in these bad guys – namely, their accents – is a surefire way of figuring out what tension plagues the United States.
It’s unsurprising to find Cold War epics reaching new life on the silver screen in recent years. Red Sparrow (2018), currently in theaters, is a Soviet-minded thriller that feels straight out of the 1980s with its roleplaying of Communist skullduggery, excepting the one small, not-so-subtle twist of gender to freshen the whole thing up.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as the “sparrow” in question, a highly trained and combatively degraded Russian operative expert in the mysterious skill of sexpionage.
Lawrence’s character is adept at using her body as a weapon and sexualizing her violence – probably poor taste for a film now engaged in the #MeToo moment – until she falls for her mark, an American (Joel Edgerton) who’s integrity and values start to unspool her Soviet hardwiring.
“You are better at this than any others. Your only problem is you have a soul,” Russian Jeremey Irons chastises her in the trailer of the film.
Thrillers seek to remind us that the enemy, however powerful they may be, are at the mercy of their weaker values.
Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde (2017), Bridge of Spies (2015) and others like them regurgitate the old Cold War propaganda as new, in light of all the recent suspicion, however well-founded, that Russia is currently trying to infiltrate and influence our democracy. We’re scared by this, as Twitter is only so happy to reinforce, but the new films offer an illusory antidote to our fears: The Russians, however powerful they may be, are at the mercy of their weaker values.
With this in mind, it’s exceedingly interesting to throw into the mix Red Joan, an upcoming film starring Judy Dench, now in post-production. The film is directed by Trevor Nunn, who spent a decent career as a writer-director for BBC productions, and seems to be the measured, British response to recent cinematic brinksmanship. Indeed, Dame Dench is not the laconic spymaster she played as M in recent 007 franchises, she is the spy herself. One imagines what the explosions-averse would recognize as a “cerebral thriller.”
Norwood evaded detection until past retirement, and was apprehended by MI5 while living quietly as a grandmother.
Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name by British author Jennie Rooney. The novel is based off the true story of Melita Norwood, the KGB’s most essential British spy, who leaked secrets from the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. Norwood evaded detection until past retirement and was apprehended by MI5 while living quietly as a grandmother. This is the entry point for the film, from which Dench’s character reveals her past in flashbacks. Her younger self, played by Sophie Cookson, falls in love with a young Russian she meets while studying at Cambridge in 1938, and eventually aligns with his Communist views.
The rest of the plot in Red Joan, and the lengths of its embellishing, still remain unknown, but what we’ve been given so far is enough to get excited about. Through all the superweapons and counterstrikes and gadgetry we’ve played witness to over the years in the cinematic cold war, rarely does one get any insight into the values and interests that promote secret agents to act on behalf of their countries.
As Americans, those motives are seemingly the negative space of the film itself, everything that remains unsaid about what’s worth fighting for. But Norwood, the spy Dench’s character is based off, was a lifelong Brit who stole secrets for the Russians simply because she believed in the ideology of Communism.
Asked about her motives after capture, Norwood stated: “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.” That doesn’t sound like an affront to our values.
Time will tell if Trevor Nunn can successfully deliver Norwood’s story as a civil-servant-double-agent without imposing guns and sex and heat-seeking missiles. If he can, the result could be quite extraordinary.
Far too often thrillers, however cerebral they might seem, have us leaving the theater asking how did they do that? rather than why? But the story of an ordinary citizen doing something wrong to defend what she believed was right could offer us something increasingly scarce in the aftermath of nuclear proliferation – an open mind.
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