For the world and against Stalin: how British filmmakers told the story of the Soviet intelligence agent Melita Norwood

On the Russian screens came the British film “Code Red” with Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson in the lead roles. The film tells about the subject of Great Britain Joan Stanley, who during the Second World War passed the USSR on the development of the London atomic bomb by London. The real story was taken as the basis for the scenario: Soviet intelligence agent Melita Norwood became the Stanley prototype. Norwood was declassified only in the 1990s, when she was already 80 years old. RT watched the film and found out how well the events described in it correspond to historical reality.


On April 18, the drama “Red Code” about a British citizen, which during the Second World War passed secret intelligence about the development of an atomic bomb to Soviet intelligence, went into Russian hire. The film is based on the Jenna Rooney novel “Red Joan”, which, in turn, is based on real events - the story of Soviet intelligence agent Melita Norwood.

It all starts in the early 2000s. British law enforcement officers come to the cozy house of pensioner Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) to accuse her of divulging secret information. The family of the old woman in shock: what could a simple librarian tell foreign intelligence?

However, during interrogations it becomes clear - Joan has something to hide. Through a series of flashbacks, the viewer learns that in her youth the heroine (now Sophie Cookson) studied physics at Cambridge. There, the girl met the left-wing youth sympathetic to the Communists and the USSR, and became especially close to the people from Russia Sonia (Teresa Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes). With the latter she began an affair.

After training, Joan went to work in one of the secret laboratories for the development of the atomic bomb. There she acted as an assistant to one of the professors and had access to important technical documents. At the same time, Leo and Sonya tried to recruit her to receive information about the new super-weapon.

Every time Joan's friends asked her to answer with a definite “no”. Despite her feelings for Leo, she did not want to transfer atomic technology into Stalin’s hands, considering him a dictator. However, after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, Stanley changed her mind: the power of new technologies horrified her. In order to prevent a situation in which nuclear weapons would turn out to be only on one of the sides — this would inevitably lead to war — the girl began to transfer secret documents to Sonja.

  • Judi Dench in the movie "Code Red"
  • © kinopoisk.ru

“Useful idiots”, Natasha Fatale and pacifist Joan

To the credit of the filmmakers, they reacted to their heroine with sympathy. In the film, Joan is shown on one side as a victim of circumstances, and on the other, as a fighter for peace. At the same time, the writers deprived her of any political convictions, which clearly makes the girl's motivation less convincing. If and does not nullify. Otherwise, the authors reacted to the "Russian agents" and the British Communists.

The first are exposed in a negative light. They are insidious manipulators and murderers. The image of the Russian reconnaissance son Sonya turned out to be almost caricatured: pitch black hair, strongly powdered, deathly pale face, bright red lips and a demonic look. One gets the impression that the spy villain Natasha Fatale from the cartoon "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" inspired the creation of her image of the authors.

The communists appeared on the screen exactly as they were drawn by the Western propaganda of those years. At that time, sympathizers of the USSR were often called “useful idiots” and accused of being led by cunning propagandists from Moscow.

The authors decided not to go into details of why these people became Communists. Ideological conversations and even the statements at the rally included in the picture look extremely superficial and unconvincing: it is not clear what the Communists believe and what they want, why they risk their lives for the sake of the idea. The audience will not be offered anything deeper than the notorious phrase “Let's build a new world on the wreckage of the old”.

The careless attitude of the writers to the subject is best demonstrated by the scene in which Sonya complains to Joan that she will be punished by the KGB. It happens in 1945. Apparently, the authors of the film did not bother to go on the Internet and find out that then the departments with the same name did not exist in the USSR.

  • Sophie Cookson and Stephen Campbell Moore in the film “Code Red”
  • © kinopoisk.ru

How it was in reality

The prototype of Joan Stanley, the subject of Great Britain Melita Norwood, was born in 1912 in the family of an emigrant from Latvia, the Bolshevik Alexander Sirnis. Her parents sympathized with the communist and leftist ideals, published newspapers and engaged in political activism. The Great Depression of the early 1930s also affected the UK. Melita's family was forced to move to London in search of work, and the girl had to leave school at Southampton University.

Difficult times of economic decline, as well as upbringing in the family of communists, determined the political views of Norwood - in 1936 she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Subsequently, one of the founders of the party, Andrew Rotstein, recommended her for a meeting with representatives of the intelligence department of the NKVD.

Norwood was of particular value to Soviet intelligence because of her place of work — after moving to London, she joined the British Nonferrous Metals Research Association (BNFMRA), where she had access to secret data and research projects. She supplied information to the NKVD of high importance and was elevated to the rank of an agent with the call sign "Khol."

The turning point in the history of Norwood was 1941. Then Great Britain set about creating an atomic bomb. The top-secret project was named Tube Alloys (“Tubular Alloys”), and BNFMRA participated in its development, which studied the properties of uranium and other metals necessary for the manufacture of atomic weapons.

By that time, Melita Norwood held the position of personal secretary to the director of BNFRMA, so most of the secret documents relating to the Tube Alloys project went through her hands. This made her the most valuable agent of the NKVD (later the KGB) in the UK. Norwood continued to transfer to the USSR data on British atomic projects even after the end of the war, even though two other Soviet agents involved in atomic secrets - Alan May and Klaus Fuchs - were discovered and arrested by counterintelligence MI5.

  • Melita Norwood
  • © Wikipedia / Reuters

It is believed that Norwood was under suspicion of MI-5 since 1945, and by the mid-1960s the British counterintelligence was already convinced that Norwood was an agent of the KGB, but did not have direct and irrefutable evidence. Melita Norwood continued to transmit information in the USSR until 1971. In 1972, at the age of 60, she retired. For the works, Norwood was awarded a special departmental pension from the KGB of £ 20 and the Order of the Red Banner.

Norwood was declassified only in the 1990s as a result of the betrayal of the former employee of the archival department of the First Directorate of the KGB, Vasily Mitrokhin. In 1992, he and his family fled to the UK, where he handed over to the authorities the synopses of secret Soviet intelligence documents.

In 1999, Melita Norwood was briefly detained by the British authorities. When the informant was released, she gave a press conference in the garden of her house in Bexleyheath.

“I didn’t do it for the sake of money, but to protect the new system, which at great cost ensured that ordinary people had food and the possibility of a decent life, good education and health care,” she quotes The New York Times.

Despite the hype that caused the Melita Norwood case in the press, she did not suffer any punishment and died at liberty in 2005 at the age of 93.

ref: russiart