Judi Dench gets star billing in “Red Joan,” a based-on-fact British drama about an elderly widow abruptly arrested by the British Secret Service on suspicion of providing classified information to the Soviet Union during World War II. But if you watch it expecting a glorious Denchian wallow — like, most recently “Victoria & Abdul” or “Philomena” — you’ll be disappointed. Dench is only in the film for a small fraction of its running time; most of it takes place in the past, with Sophie Cookson playing a young version of Joan.
In those sequences, “Red Joan” is a handsome film, and Cookson — in the sort of role frequently played by Keira Knightley — does well as a bright young scientist at Cambridge University and later at the Tube Alloys Project (TAP), a secret mission researching development of the atomic bomb. But director Trevor Nunn, a legendary theater director who rarely works in film, can’t seem to make this part of the movie (which is to say, most of it) distinctive. Young Joan falls in love, first with a dashing Russian student, then with her TAP boss. Young Joan experiences crises while attractively posed on the glorious Cambridge campus. Young Joan becomes friends with Alan Turing … no, wait, that’s “The Imitation Game,” a movie “Red Joan” frequently appears to be channeling.
Pity, because this is a fascinating story; based on a novel by Jennie Rooney that was inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant who was in her 80s when publicly accused of revealing state secrets during the war. And Dench, in her limited screen time, gives us tantalizing hints of who this weary-looking woman, slumped by the weight of secrets, might be. Gazing at her son (Ben Miles), an attorney who’s defending Joan despite being furious with her, she holds her mouth tightly shut; a closed door against the past. You sense that this woman has spent a lifetime not saying things, and that all she wants is to quietly be allowed to fade away.
★★½ “Red Joan,” with Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Sbrova. Directed by Trevor Nunn, from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero, based on the novel by Jennie Rooney. 100 minutes. Rated R for brief sexuality/nudity. Opens May 3 at AMC Seattle 10, Regal Meridian.