Since so few publications these days critically review anything, I plan from now on to dilute the pure ‘jazzness’ of this blog occasionally, when something from another art-form (a book; a movie) is worth talking about. In this case, the review is here as a warning to interrogate very carefully the ‘history’ the mass media sometimes pretend to show us. But don’t worry: 99% of the time you’ll still find nothing but jazz.
Nobody expects a biographical film to reflect every detail of the life it documents – even less when the film is itself based on a book explicitly fictionalising that life. Red Joan, starring Judi Dench, which opened in South Africa last month, is based on Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same title. The novel is based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, described by Soviet defector Vassily Mitrokhin as ” the most important British female agent in KGB history”.
The movie doesn’t acknowledge that importance. Indeed, it tells us remarkably little that is truthful about the real Norwood. Fine, it’s a film based on a fiction. But creative choices in current fiction and film matter — because they tell us about now, not then. And the choices made first by novellist Rooney and subsequently by director Trevor Nunn and scriptwriter Lindsay Shapero play out the mood – nostalgic, insular, right-wing – of Brexit Britain today.
The real Melita Norwood was the child of a refugee Latvian revolutionary, Peter Sirnis, and an English suffragette and shoemaker, Gertrude Stedman, who met when Stedman came to mend shoes at the radical émigré commune in Hampshire where he had settled. Sirnis died when Melita was six, but not before becoming a labour organiser and publisher of a workers’ newspaper, and reprinting the complete works of Lenin on the commune’s press. Gertrude later moved to London with her daughters, and worked as a ‘letter box’ for Soviet intelligence. Melita quit her university studies in Latin and philosophy to work, married trade unionist and communist Hilary Nussbaum (who Anglicised his name to Norwood) and in the late 1930s became an active Soviet spy, copying from her workplace top-secret materials about wartime weapons, which the UK and the US would not share with Communist Russia.
At the time she was most active, in the mid- to late 1940s, she was, in her own words “picking the kid up, getting the home-help and getting the shopping done.” These, she said, “occupied much more of my time than spying.” Melita’s activities had been suspected since the mid-1960s, but were only confirmed when Mitrokhin defected and spilled the beans. However, she was never arrested, and lived to the age of 93, still a radical, and proud of the work she had done for the socialist cause. “In the same circumstances,” she said, “I know that I would do the same thing again.”
You’d think there was enough there to make a compelling film. None of it appears in Red Joan.
Instead, the fictional Joan Stanley (played by Dench in old age and Sophie Cookson as a young girl) is a blonde, naïve, 100% English headmaster’s daughter – her father occasionally gave charity to the poor – who works towards a First in theoretical physics at Cambridge. She is seduced literally and metaphorically into espionage by a pair of glamorous Jewish refugees, Sonya and Leo. She recants for love of her boss, whom she later marries, and in apolitical old age is arrested, hobbled by a security cuff, and interrogated (in the movie world, a Communist must be brought low). The film is structured around her flashback memories of the early days.
It all looks very pretty, revelling in the saturated tones and rich textures of 1940s décor and costume. Re-siting the story to the dreaming spires of Cambridge (Melita’s studies were at the rather less glamorous University of Southampton) permits a generous dollop of Downton Abbey-style nostalgia, and visual allusions to the world of those higher-profile – but less effective – elite spies, the Cambridge Five (Burgess, Maclean et al).
The historical revisionism doesn’t stop there. All the Communists Joan meets live privileged lives and are weak dupes, amoral reptiles or both. Sonya even steals Joan’s mink coat. (It’s unlikely Melita ever owned one.) No workers bar a few silent college servants, station porters and cafe waitresses sully the Cambridge scenery, and for that reason the real debates of the 1930s – about mass unemployment, hunger, war and fascism – are reduced to placards in the background. The start of, and motivation for, Joan’s espionage are pushed forward to revulsion over Hiroshima in 1945. But Melita began spying in 1937, the year Franco’s fascist allies tested their advanced weaponry by bombing the revolutionary Basque town of Guernica into dust.
Joan is shown as motivated by liberal pacifism shored up by illusions of romance. While the script scores some valid points about the contextual sexism of the era and the scientific community – there is the predictable dismissive remark about women merely “making tea” – the film’s central discourse is stereotypically sexist. It erases all the independence, agency and conviction with which Melita Norwood pursued her path. Instead, everything Joan does is reduced to tearful desperation; she spies and then recants for one or the other of the men in her life: lover, husband and finally son.
The script makes Joan’s quintessential and sheltered Englishness matter a great deal, and, more disturbingly, also Sonya and Leo’s Jewishness. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Jew before,” she confides to Sonya. In the context of Nazi hate-speech that defamed people of Jewish heritage as rapacious, cosmopolitan Bolsheviks preying on Aryan virgins, that sub-text is repulsive. The real Melita was a migrant’s child who grew up with Jewish comrades, and married a Jewish man. People of all faiths and none worked closely together in the socialist and anti-fascist movements during the interwar years, while the antisemitic British Foreign Office was dismissing reports of Nazi atrocities and death-camps as “hysterical”.
The acting skills of Judi Dench are formidable, here as in every other film she has appeared in, and despite a script that renders Melita Norwood’s unique life banal and stereotyped. But the script isn’t the worst thing about Red Joan. The worst thing is that it poses as grounded in history, now, when the most vicious myths of fascism are rising from the swamp again, and it feeds those myths.
(*Melita Norwood tells her own story in historian David Burke’s 2009 book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spy-Who-Came-Co-op-Intelligence/dp/1843834227 )