A Take on British Espionage and A Vivid Examination of Our Southern Border

At the Movies - May 2019

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Sophie Cookson and Steven Campbell Moore in a thoughtful moment from “Red Joan.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of IFC Films

Red Joan
Comes another British spy film “inspired by a true story,” but adapted from a novel. “Red Joan” describes how a young woman physician at Cambridge University came to pass secrets of the British nuclear program to the Soviet Union right after World War II. This figure, Joan Stanley (representing a real person, Melita Norwood) is played in her maturity by Judi Dench. The film opens in 2000, when widow Joan is arrested by MI5 officers at her suburban home, taken into custody, and questioned about her earlier involvement with communist and leftist contacts. Her traumatic interrogation drives her to recall a series of flashback memories (the film, released in late April, is rated “R” with a running time of 101 minutes).

The first flashback us to 1938 Cambridge, where 18-year-old Joan (Sophie Cookson) is smitten both by physics and by Leo (Tom Hughes) an intriguing émigré—from Russia via Germany—a young “red” enamored of the USSR, and, to a lesser extent, Joan. Joan’s loyalties are divided, though, since she admires her earnest professor, Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) both for his knowledge and for his early awareness of her scientific acumen, even though she is “just a girl.” He eventual takes Joan on his team to work on secret nuclear development. Her ping-pong life between fitful romance and steady achievement lasts through WWII, when the reality of the US atom bombs in Japan chastens her views on nuclear power. She becomes convinced that, to achieve equilibrium in the world, she must reveal nuclear secrets to the USSR to balance the Americans and engender “world peace” through mutually assured destruction.

Back to 2000, we see the elder Joan, feeling she has done nothing wrong but agonizing about her probably traitorous acts. These scenes are countered by her younger self preparing a cover-up for her actions, one that requires her fleeing to Australia to start a new life with a husband. Evidence of that family appears in the framing story in the person of her son, Nick (Ben Miles) a noted barrister who gradually learns of his mum’s appalling past and is revolted by it.

For avid Judi Dench fans, be aware she is a featured player here, secondary to the main action. Her performance is one mostly of pained perturbation, though she shows off some sparks in intense exchanges with her son. The star of “Red Joan” is Cookson (the “Kingsman” series) who does a decent job of playing the naïve who slowly gravitates to crusader, a woman emotionally led by “better red than dead” logic. She is nicely balanced by the veteran Moore, whose Max is a serious yet jaunty type who comes to value Joan. Her paramour, played by Hughes, comes off less well, more of a sketch than a real person (we never see him at work or any other task). Hughes basically does a glib variation of his Prince Albert character from the PBS series “Victoria,” complete with an affected Russo/German accent.

Trevor Nunn, one of the greatest of contemporary British stage directors, here helms his first big screen film since 1996 (“Twelfth Night”) and does a capable job. No fireworks, little flash, this is a competent little espionage thriller that might satisfy one on a Friday night out… Whether you will debate Joan’s ethics afterwards at dinner is another story.

The team rides horseback through Big Bend National Park in Texas in the new documentary “The River and the Wall”

The River and the Wall
Political Washington is awash in arguments about immigration at our southern border and, especially, that manifest symbol of staunching that migration, the Trumpian “Wall.” Our national media tries, as best they can, to educate the public about that border but tends to do it in small, disjointed pieces because the story is so vast. Now, in a supremely timely movie, we can experience an immersive adventure through a major part of that boundary. “The River and the Wall” follows five friends through the wilds of the Texas borderlands as they travel 1,200 miles over more than two months from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, tracing and examining the Rio Grande up close (the film opens in DC cinemas on May 3, runs 97 mins. and is unrated).

The director of the picture is wildlife filmmaker Ben Masters, who aims to document this last remaining Texas wilderness as the threat of new border wall construction looms. To share his experience, he recruits several nature-minded colleagues: National Geographic filmmaker Filipe DeAndrade, ornithologist and ecologist Heather Mackey, Rio Grande river guide Austin Alvarado, and conservationist Jay Kleberg of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. To get up close and personal with the river, the group performs their trek on mountain bikes, horses, and canoes. Their exploration takes them through raw but ravishing brush country, the glories of Big Bend National Park, and into the more populated Lower Rio Grande Valley. They examine the potential impacts of a wall on the natural environment, wilderness, and agriculture, but they also explore the human dimension of the immigration debate.

Our guides are a companionable bunch. Ben is a low-key but expert leader and horseman, Jay is earnest and knowledgeable, Heather is curious and committed, Austin is river-smart and adaptable, and Filipe is the class clown and least adept in the wild. Masters gives all of them a chance to do solo turns which show off their expertise and skills, whether it’s bird spotting (Heather), or rapids running (Austin), or wildlife filming (Filipe). Telling, too, in a border story touching on immigration, two of the group come from families who came to the States as illegals. Brazilian Filipe’s family is from Rio — where he was born — and Austin’s family came from Guatemala, though he was born in Texas (namely Austin).

“The River and the Wall” takes a different tack from the current, frenzied media coverage of the border. It does not stress the poignant dilemmas of human border crossings, mostly occurring around cities. In fact, having finished shooting in early 2018, it cannot address the current impasse caused by the major Central America influx that so roils our political waters. The film concentrates instead on the natural world and the complexities of land use. Its gorgeous nature photography (six cinematographers beautifully led by John Aldrich) highlights the sheer impossibility of “walling” most of the Rio Grande. It notes the generations of peoples fluidly moving back and forth across the border whose mobility would be stifled with more walls. It also highlights how a crude, straight wall would segregate tens of thousands of acres of rich US farmland that wraps around the ancient convolutions of the river.

This picture will give you an introduction to a part of our country too little known but worthy of being experienced.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.