Thursday, May 2, 2019

The unwitting creator of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Red Joan, directed by Trevor Nunn and opening this weekend at the Birmingham Theatre 8 and Main Art Theatre, is based on the true story of a woman, in old age, unmasked as a British spy during the Second World War. Judi Dench plays the elderly Joan Stanley (based on the real Melita Norwood through the novel of Jennie Rooney). It’s an interesting story, and one I’d never heard of, and yet, for me, still raises philosophical or moral issues, though the film’s conclusion makes it seem all is settled. Joan was a research scientist in physics during WW II and seconded to a top-secret lab developing a British nuclear bomb. While there she befriends a campus agitator, Leo (Tom Hughes) who asks her to transfer information to the Russians, who also seek the bomb. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is appalled by the request. But after she sees the results of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki decides, using a miniature camera, to convey diagrams and other information to the Soviets. She maintains her patriotism but thought that giving another country such information would create a worldwide power balance, which in fact became popularly known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). “I was fighting for the living,” she maintains. And upon arrest 40 years later she tells a news conference that ensuring an enemy had the bomb was principled, “because only that way could the horror of another world war be averted.” That is farsighted thinking indeed and how at the time could she have been so sure her actions would result in no future nuclear war? But her intuition proved correct, incredibly so.  MAD became the overriding policy as the West and Communist East Bloc maintained a standoff for 50 years. In that sense Joan Stanley or Melita Norwood should be credited. But it is also extremely ironic that the film and the book and presumably much British popular opinion would applaud this would-be heroine while the philosophy of MAD, writ large by the top echelons of government and Realpolitik, be mocked for decades by, among others, the peace movement. And what if her spying had resulted in a new nuclear war? It just turned out she was kind of lucky. In the film, Dench as the older Joan has a smaller part, the weight of the character is carried by Cookson as the younger Joan, and she is strikingly good. From performing in close-up and in intimate settings with Leo and her then boss, Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), to the kind of nervous quirkiness as she attempts to deceive authorities while carrying out her spying. And unlike many other films with a young and older character version, both Dench and Cookson’s characters have similar looks and facial features. Also, the sets and costumes are well done. In many period movies there’s usually something about wardrobe that’s off, but here authenticity prevails quite well.

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