I seem to remember largely sniffy reviews when this was released in Britain, dismissing it as a TV movie. It’s more than that, or rather TV movies are more than that, as the hidden histories that they present are often far more entertaining and informative than any number of crashy-crashy-bang blockbusters.
This tale of ‘I never knew that” is based on the fairly recent case of the ‘granny spy’ who was charged of passing on military secrets to the Russians. It is largely told in flashback from the POV of a shocked but not befuddled Judi Dench who finds reminiscing her past more engaging than her police interview.
We spring back to Cambridge university in the 1930s. War is imminent and young Joan falls in with Sonya and Leo, charming cousins who also happen to be Russian Jews and communists. She starts an affair with Leo. When war is declared, Leo is interned as an enemy alien and Sonya flees to Switzerland.
Joan starts work on the British atom bomb project and is treated by most people as if she’s there to make the tea, even though she’s just graduated with a First in Physics. Leo reappears and tries to get her to “share” information with the Russians. She refuses, citing scientific neutrality, which is severely challenged by a couple of hundred thousand deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She begins, reluctantly, to take a camera into work.
Here she finds a way of exploiting the pervading everyday sexism and prudishness. When she thinks she’s being followed, she slips into a women’s clothes shop, confident that no man would follow her in. When she wants to smuggle anything out, she knows that if she puts it in a box of sanitary towels, she’ll be safe.
Why does she do all this? If the film’s to be believed, it’s because of a nascent multilateralism: the idea that if the West has nuclear weapons, we need to give some to the Soviet union to even things out. I can go along with that (people have acted on much crazier ideas) but only so far.
The film seems to have an unspoken distrust of all foreign governments – the Russians are murderous, the US-Americans arrogant, and the Canadians aren’t to be trusted. Now all these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, true, and there are many people who can believe this, without noting the beam in their eye of the Colonial British government. Many people, maybe, but are we really expected to believe that Joan risked her career for an abstract sense of justice, but saw absolutely no fault in her own government? But even mentioning the fact that Britain even employed equivalent spies seems to be way off limits.
This apparent naivety risks the credibility of what seems to be a reasonably accurate telling of Joan’s story. Great pains are taken to show that she may have gone to the occasional communist party film screening, but that was only because she fancied Leo. It’s as if the director and writer thought that by giving Joan ideas of her own it would sully the idea of her as an impartial idealist.
Yet when it comes to physics, the film celebrates the fact that Joan is brimming with ideas. Nonetheless this is one false step in a generally enjoyable film. Theres nothing earth shattering here, nor are there any fancy camera angles, but it’s an interesting tale, well told.