Like many of you, I love a good spy story. Especially if it rings true, like those by penned John Le Carré or Graham Greene. They knew the clandestine world of which they wrote.
Also “Red Joan,” a new movie by Trevor Nunn, has the ring of truth … because it is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood.
The story toggles between two eras. We meet Joan Stanley, a dotty old woman leading a boring cookie-cutter life in a London suburb. That is, until the British Secret Service arrests her for treason.
You never know what to make of that kindly old lady next door, do you?
Seems Red Joan was a KGB spy back in the ‘30s, feeding England’s secrets to the Russians.
England has long been a hotbed of Russian spies. Think of Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross – the so-called Cambridge Five – British diplomats who spied for the Russian during World War II.
Or civil servant John Vassall who spied for the Russians under threat of blackmail in the ‘50s.
Or Alexander Litvinenko, killed with a dose of plutonium by his former FSB handlers.
Or Sergei Skripal and his daughter who were poisoned on British soil by their former Russian spymasters with a nerve agent.
Or Garth Williams, the GCHQ codebreaker who was murdered by Russia’s SVR when he refused to become a double agent.
And let’s not forget sexy Anna Chapman, the once-based-in-London spy who got shipped back to Moscow after being caught with her pants down in New York.
Many of Russia’s 59 diplomats in the United Kingdom are intelligence officers, we’re told. So far 23 of these officers have been expelled by the British government over the Sergei Skripal assassination.
Which brings us back to the case of Melita Stedman Norwood (née Sirnis), the subject of “Red Joan.” For some 40 years Norwood supplied the KGB (and its predecessor agencies) with state secrets gleamed from her work with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.
Eventually she was exposed by the 1992 defection of former KGB archivist Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin. But she had been long retired by then.
A lifelong communist, Norwood did not profit from her actions. As she stated: “I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.”
As it turns out, Norwood was never prosecuted for her actions and died in 2005.
Based on a book by Jennie Rooney, “Red Joan” is sharing its secrets this week at Tropic Cinema.
Covering different periods of the dowdy femme fatale’s life, Joan Stanley (our ersatz Norwood) is played by both 84-year-old Dame Judi Dench and 28-year-old Sophie Cookson.
The film was helmed by Sir Trevor Robert Nunn, a former Artistic Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. While this might not rise up to the malevolent plotting of “Macbeth” or even equal his earlier adaptation of “Twelfth Night: Or What You Will,” you will find this peek behind the Red Curtain fascinating for its real-life drama.
No, it’s not Shakespeare, but for anglophiles it’s a good spy story.
Email Shirrel: firstname.lastname@example.org