Review

REVIEW: Red Sparrow (2018)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds

Running time: 140 minutes

3-stars

When Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova’s (Lawrence) career is cruelly, and painfully, cut short, she is forced to dance to a different tune – that of her Uncle (Schoenaerts) and the Russian intelligence service – when she is blackmailed into enlisting in a secret government training programme – one that transforms Russia’s young and attractive ex-military into ‘Sparrows’: subservient spies fully prepared to do all that is necessary to obtain enemy information.

Jennifer Lawrence’s career has taken her – and indeed us – to some rather unexpected places of late. Ever since leaving District 12 behind for good, we’ve seen her venture out beyond the stars with a certain Star Lord (“who?”); had the worst of it – and an undeserving Razzie nom to boot – playing wifey to Javier Bardem’s struggling poet in real life ex-squeeze Darren Aronofksy’s mother!; and now, with Red Sparrow, we see her try her hand at the whole Russian spy thing. Say what you will about her post-Katniss choices, but you can’t deny Jennifer Lawrence never backs down from a challenge.

In reuniting with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence here, the real challenge this time round is how to make Red Sparrow something more than just another sexy, seductive – but ultimately anti-climactic – Hollywood espionage thriller.

So, what do we get with Red Sparrow? Well, it’s another sexy, seductive – but ultimately anti-climactic – Hollywood espionage thriller. There’s sex, there’s espionage, but really very few thrills. And although Lawrence’s film takes its time with narrative teases, and stylistic titillation, in the end, we’re left alone in the dark to embark on the cinematic walk of shame.

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Much like Dominika herself, Red Sparrow begins as graceful, kinetic, and mysterious. As she leaps eloquently about the illuminated stage of decadent theatre in the film’s opening frames, Francis Lawrence makes neat contrasting jump cuts to the dark, decrepit streets of night-time Moscow as Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash – a CIA operative stationed in Russia – draws local police away from a valuable acquaintance in a park. It’s an impressive enough introduction, raising questions aplenty, and one that does a nice job, visually, of setting characters on initially very different paths, to ones that will inevitably cross.

From there, viewers expecting a slick, action-packed ride will be quickly put in their place, as, after a few literal and figurative falls from grace, the story begins to show its true feathers as it flutters through a dense, complex, and at times convoluted narrative and unexpectedly nosedives into some truly dark territory. Based on a 2013 novel by ex-CIA Jason Matthews, the tale might be called Red Sparrow, but the trailer is most certainly a red herring, as the film’s hard edge begins to really take shape once our protagonist is dropped at the door of Sparrow school.

Within those four walls, Dominika is subject to some of the most extreme methods of transformation imaginable, as both mind and body are commoditised and weaponised solely for the State’s gain. We’re talking compulsory S&M viewing, attempted rape, and forced fellatio. And Lawrence’s camerawork is unflinching throughout – lingering, exposing, and controversial. It’s a tough and uncomfortable watch, and one that will certainly raise more than a few eyebrows over the sexual politics. But sensibly, the film is never concrete in how it wishes to present the psychological impact of such treatment. Is Dominika indeed succumbing to her superiors’ demands and becoming the loyal, subservient, seductive Sparrow they’re forcing her to be? Or is she teaching her body to become a powerful tool of manipulation for her own gain? The film will have you toing and froing between both right up until the very end.

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Simultaneously beckoning and distancing viewers with a single glare, Lawrence soars as Dominika – even if the Russian accent occasionally plummets. Elsewhere, it’s frustrating to see the talents of Irons and Hinds used so sparingly, and in roles that would’ve been far more effective had they been played by Russian actors. Instead, what we get appears more than anything like a re-run of Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin had all his actors been asked to attempt the local dialect. There’s also a mid-point hotel scene involving Mary-Louise Paker’s US Senator’s chief of staff that feels altogether misaligned; as if someone has simply lifted it from an entirely different film and inserted it here.

It’s not all quite as disjointed, however. Matthias Schoenaerts’ Uncle Ivan gets suitable fleshing and his presence is felt at every step and turn Dominika takes. As for the American offerings, Bill Camp grabs a handful of laughs, and Edgerton does his best with an otherwise one-dimensional spy-film archetypal role – even if his and Lawrence’s on-screen chemistry never really takes off. But Red Sparrow is – and was only ever going to be – about one bird, and one bird only.

Intricate and complex to a fault, Red Sparrow is a story that undoubtedly works a lot better on the page. There’s a masterclass in espionage genre cinema in there somewhere; it’s a shame that it will only be the film’s more daringly nasty moments that’ll stay with you for any length of time.

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