Review: Red Sparrow
Jennifer Lawrence’s latest film Red Sparrow certainly looks appealing on the surface; a story of Russian and American counterintelligence that feels ripe for the current moment, boasting a chilly exterior reminiscent of films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Unfortunately, it quickly devolves into questionable territory before the end of its first act, acting as another misfire for the A-list actress, despite reteaming with her Hunger Games series director Francis Lawrence.
Based on the 2013 novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows Bolshoi Ballet dancer Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) whose career suddenly ends following an on-stage injury. She is later coerced by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Soviet intelligence officer, to enter ‘Sparrow School’, an institute which trains young spies in the art of sexual manipulation. As she later puts it, it’s more-or-less “whore school”, as the students learn to give their bodies and close themselves off emotionally for the sake of the state. Dominika endures stripping in front of her classmates, viewing hardcore pornography, and servicing military personnel as part of the curriculum, with every ensuing scene in this section drenched in cheap sexploitation territory.
The potential for Red Sparrow to become a major entry in the female spy canon is thwarted, in how it displays sexual violence against Dominika, to the point of being revolting. Violent rape, prolonged scenes of torture, and submissive acts form the basis of this aspect, notwithstanding moments where the camera oggles Lawrence’s body with unease.
This is where Red Sparrow’s biggest fault comes into play; Dominika is degraded over and over for the sake of survival, and we don’t get any real insight into how this affects her personally as the character is constantly detached and icy in her performance. Attempts to reposition this into a powerful feminist position are weak at best, and never come across as fulfilling even in the sudden twist that occurs towards the end. It’s a shame that more thought wasn’t put into handling the material itself, as an opportunity for an actually empowered female lead with agency would have made the film all the better; as it stands this component is where things turns sour.
When Red Sparrow isn’t being horrendously problematic, it’s extremely boring. At 140 minutes, there’s a good 30 minutes of needless minor characters and exposition that get in the way of a potentially engaging, electric story. The screenplay by Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness, The Lone Ranger) gets to be confusing in the latter half, as various plot elements coalesce and it becomes difficult to pinpoint what’s happening in addition to where and why. Dominika’s first mission as she goes to Budapest to track down American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and seduce him for secrets features an insurmountable amount of plodding. As you would have guessed they develop a relationship, yet Lawrence and Edgerton lack chemistry, and what’s even more troubling is how much information they’re willing to supply each other with about their respective backgrounds.
Edgerton gives a fairly restrained performance, not able to compare to the celebrated thespians that round out Red Sparrow’s ensemble (Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds). Mary-Louise Parker gets a somewhat amusing turn as a corrupt American senator that feels like an attempt to invoke a change of pace, but at the 2 hour mark it comes too late.
Director Francis Lawrence does imbue some stylistic flair to his shooting style, and we get a solid James Newton Howard original score that’s reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s work on Vertigo. Red Sparrow desperately wants to be a subversive spy thriller with an erotic twist, not unlike last summer’s Charlize Theron-starrer Atomic Blonde. While that was a unique take on the typical Cold War espionage narrative, this film is likely to leave viewers feeling just plain cold.