Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey
As Jennifer Lawrence has transitioned from just being an actress to being a fully fledged superstar her public persona, the irreverent, funny goofball, has come to the fore. Red Sparrow, in which she is reunited with director Francis Lawrence who helmed the final three films of the Hunger Games series, gives her the opportunity to return to those qualities which first grabbed the world’s attention in Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook: strength, defiance, determination.
“Every human being is a puzzle of need. Learn how to be the missing piece and they will give you anything.” This is the mantra of the Sparrows, a special program within the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, focused on psychological manipulation. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) was prima ballerina in the Bolshoi ballet until an onstage accident takes that dream from her. With a sick mother at home dependent on her health insurance, Dominika has no choice but to accept an offer from her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), Deputy Director of the SVR, to join the Sparrow program. There, “whore school” as Dominika disdainfully refers to it, she and other attractive young specimens are trained under the watchful eye of the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use their minds and, particularly, their bodies to put persons of interest in vulnerable positions so as to harvest information for the state. While her strong will makes her far from Matron’s ideal student, she is selected to take on an important mission. There is a mole in the SVR who is feeding information to the Americans. CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is known to have been the mole’s contact, has resurfaced in Budapest. Dominika is to head to Budapest with a view to finding Nash, winning him over, and discovering the identity of the mole.
While the central premise sounds intentionally titillating – Russian sex spies – Red Sparrow is not a sexy movie. It is undoubtedly sexual, and in that regard is a departure for Jennifer Lawrence who has tended to steer clear of highly sexualised roles, but rather than seeking to exploit the more salacious elements of its plot, Francis Lawrence does the opposite, offering a harsh and at times unpleasant treatment of the material. The sexual politics of the film are challenging. Dominika is consistently presented with choices that aren’t choices. She is a pawn in larger power struggles. But she is also a survivor. She is hard willed and what makes her character compelling is her refusal to be exploited. She fights to retain agency and control over her situation.
Based on the 2013 novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow is a grown up thriller. It is demanding of its audience, requiring you to keep up rather than be spoon fed. Nash spots Dominika almost instantly, so instead of being a film about her attempts to avoid detection and observe him, it becomes a dance between these two trained spies as they try and figure each other out. As viewers we are privy to both sides of the equation. We are shown meetings and hear the strategies of both the Russian and American camps. The only thing we consistently do now know is what Dominika is thinking. So amongst all of the crossing and double crossing, we never truly know who she is playing.
Politically, Red Sparrow manages to feel simultaneously out of date, tapping into an old fashioned Cold War dynamic that would have been right at home in the 1950s or 1960s, and, given the present election hacking investigation, more topical than the filmmakers could seemingly have imaged when they set out. While the plots has its ins and outs, the biggest mystery is when this story is supposed to be set. The Sparrows are told that they are “weapons in a global struggle for power.” They are reds in, rather than under, the bed. It is not until we see a character pull out a smart phone that it even occurs to the viewer that this might be set in the present day. But the information gathering is very analogue, person-to-person, with no evidence of the sort of high-tech cyber-surveillance that defines the contemporary spy thriller and, we assume, espionage industry. There is even a major narrative event concerning the exchange of information contained on floppy disks.
With two charismatic leads backed by a top-shelf supporting cast of veteran actors (making various degrees of effort in maintaining Russian accents), Red Sparrow is not the exploitation film you might expect. While this makes for a more interesting film, it could potentially hurt it at the box office. It is bleak, genuinely intense and frank to the point of being downright nasty at times. While not always entirely successful, Red Sparrow is bold in its willingness to make you uncomfortable, going just a bit further than you would expect from a studio movie.
Review by Duncan McLean
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