Local cinemas this week

M is back, but not as you know her

Movie of the week: Red Joan

For those who only know Judi Dench as James Bond’s steely MI6 boss M, meeting her here as a doddery elderly woman clipping roses in her suburban garden will come as a surprise. But relax, as it turns out, that kindly old pensioner is actually a KGB agent, and has been for an incredible 60 years. Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan is adapted from Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel – itself “inspired by” the true story of a woman called Melita Norwood, a scientific researcher who passed on nuclear secrets to the Russians over a quite considerable period. His movie appears to be a pretty free and easy version of what actually happened, but even so, it’s an amazing story that will resonant with those who enjoyed the recent similarly themed period drama The Imitation Game. And a very impressive Sophie Cookson, playing the younger, ideologically driven and romantic younger Joan, shines brightly in the lengthy flashback scenes – which make up most of the movie’s run time.

Many idealistic students fell under the sway of the Communist Party in the 30s and 40s, and in Joan’s case, her conversion was aided by also falling head-over-heels in love with a dashing European Jewish intellectual Leo (Tom Hughes – Albert in TV’s Victoria). He was a hard-core revolutionary, as was his glamorous cousin Sonia (Tereza Srbova), both of them slyly manipulative and already secretly working for the Soviets. But very dashing – and convincing in their political passion to the smart but naive young physicist Joan – who during the war, fortuitously lands a job working with the secret British team developing Atomic weapons. Naturally Leo and Sonia figure they have the perfect sleeper agent, though Joan resists, for a while… Then after some anguished reflection when the US obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some more emotionally destabilising between-the-sheets hanky panky with her married boss (Stephen Campbell Moore), she decided she had to “even the playing field,” and help the Soviets bring about the nuclear stand-off – the one that did in fact keep the peace, right up until the fall of the Iron Curtain. So was she right?

Considering her pivotal role in the way events unfolded in the last half of the 20th century, it’s an interesting question, and Cookson is charming and convincing as the highly conflicted and inexperienced spy battling with her conscience. The lively scenes during the tumultuous war years and their aftermath are by far the film’s best, but sadly they only serve to make the present-day ones with a more secretive and melancholic older Joan seem drab in comparison. Who, according to the film, (and not true), spent most of her adult life hiding out in Australia after a dramatic bit of cloak-and-dagger treachery. But both depictions are far from reality. By all accounts Melita Norwood had a much duller life, and was also a Communist party stalwart from her early teenage years. She never went to Cambridge, and by the time of her arrest finally in 1999, was known merely as a neighbourhood eccentric pounding her suburban streets delivering leaflets for whatever left-wing cause was fashionable at the time. Sounds like someone I know in the inner west – and don’t expect a movie to be made about that woman anytime soon! M from June 6. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Burwood and Dendy Newtown ★★★1/2

Also opening this week:

In Hollywood today, no one makes overtly “gay issue” movies anymore. Same-sex attracted characters are part of a quota system in casting and getting scripts approved – in any group of three or more three characters at least one will now inevitably be LGBTI. The ratio may be tightening too if the generic multiplex teen comedy Booksmart (a bizarrely commercial late addition to the Sydney Film Festival) about two female besties is any guide. One is straight, the other lesbian, and this is an advance, of sorts… For all these characters, orientation isn’t “a thing” or a problem at all – their sexuality is simply part of who they are. In Italy however, where same-sex marriage is still against the law, movies like My Big Gay Italian Wedding are still being made – where gayness is the single point. And though director Alessadro Genovesi is making the usual plea for tolerance and acceptance, his broad mainstream comic strokes still play heavily on stereotypes and attitudes that are almost forgotten in the rest of the West. Sadly too, it’s all a bit tame – it could actually do with a bit more of the silliness and flamboyantly camp extravagance we used to get in more retro movies on this topic – even those insufferable big fat Greek ones. Antonio (Christiano Caccamo) and his bearded boyfriend Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) are sweet, decent and respectable men – who wouldn’t welcome such staid, steady, blandly agreeable people into any family? Maybe the movie represents progress after all – it proves once and for all – gays can be dull too. M from June 6 ★★

New too – X-Men: Dark Phoenix (not yet previewed)

Recently released

No one goes to a Godzilla movie expecting character development, a coherent plot, a script that makes sense or any interesting characters – audiences are just there to watch a bunch of big lizards battle it out and flatten several Western (and Eastern – there’s the Asian market to think of too) `cities. On all those levels, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla II: King of the Monsters lives up to all expectations – it is stupendously stupid.

The big guy himself gets some impressive scenes, as does Mothra and his main foe, the four-headed Ghidorah. They must have bought the butane for all the fire breathing by the tanker load – Drogon himself would have been fried to a crisp up against this lot. But speaking of GoT, I did like Charles Dance’s role – here cast as a eco terrorist (an incredibly rich one) determined to “restore the natural order” of the planet by letting the reptiles stomp it back into the Stone Age. Meanwhile Kyle Chandler gets the one good line in the movie. He deduces (wrongly) that the monsters are heading to Boston “to feed, to fight, and…” (think of another f-word but not so that we get MA15+ rating) “…something more intimate.” Hmm, interesting… Now that would have made a Godzilla movie we all could have enjoyed. M now showing, absolutely everywhere. ★1/2

The other multiplex mega-hit (also getting a big push at local arthouses) is the latest effort to re-market the back catalogues of every 70s rock star who ever a few big hits. Yes, it’s Elton John’s turn – and although Rocketman won’t hit the same identity politics potholes that got the blogging blatherers and twitter-ers all hot and bothered over the treatment of Freddy Mercury’s queerness in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s still a slightly disappointing addition to the musical bio-pic genre.

Taron Egerton certainly gives a spirited performance, and he tries, he really does (all the vocals are his) to do justice to all those monster pop hits that are so firmly and fondly imbedded in so many memories (tragically, I’m still humming Bernie and the Jets two weeks later). They’re staged in an admittedly inventive but not always very engaging video-hits way, and used to hammer home various points of the story. Which is pretty much the standard rise/substance abuse/incredible excess/regrets-I’ve-had-few saga we all know by heart. Elton himself is executive producer, and there’s more than a hint he’s using the Dexter Fletcher directed project to settle a few old scores – against his mum (Bryce Dallas Howard) and dad (Steven Mackintosh) who didn’t love him enough, and first real boyfriend and manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who, it’s claimed, treated him shabbily. That leaves a slightly nasty taste and suggests a certain immaturity in the now middle-aged father of twins. As fitting for a corporate nostalgia mega-machine like this – so determined to flog the maximum amount of product and not offend anyone – it’s also a strangely prim and proper affair. At one point Elton exclaims to his mum, “I’ve fucked everything that moves!” Er, when, Elton? There’s nothing in this fully authorised movie that tells us that could possibly be true. M on everywhere, probably forever. ★★★

Reviews Russell Edwards