Film Review: Red Sparrow (2018)
DIR: Francis Lawrence
By: Belle McIntyre
This feels like a new version of an old-fashioned cold war spy thriller with an extra dose of sex and violence. The director, Francis Lawrence, relies heavily on Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he has worked previously with on The Hunger Games franchise. She is in nearly every scene, aided in her performance, by exaggerated bangs and luxuriously long hair, with radical color changes, signifying the stages of her life. There are a lot of the usual elements of the genre - convoluted plot twists, violence, intrigue, secrets, lies and betrayals.
The set-up begins before the credits, when we see Dominika (Lawrence) in her modest apartment which she shares with her fragile mother (Joely Richardson), as she is preparing to go to the theatre where she performs as a prima ballerina with a Russian ballet company. A terrible on-stage accident causes a career-threatening injury and derails her ability to make a living as she recovers. As a dancer, she has been supported by the state with an income, apartment and health care for her mother and herself. Now their situation is precarious in an authoritarian society. Help appears in the form of her slyly sinister uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), an operative in covert activities for the government. He uses the threat of future financial insecurity to convince her to help her government by entrapping an a lascivious oligarch deemed an enemy of the state. This distasteful task is presented as a way to gain favor and to secure her future. The plan goes terribly wrong (or maybe not), ending in Dominika being sexually assaulted and witnessing a brutal murder, in which she could be implicated. She is now, for better or for worse, a player in the espionage game. (Tip: It is not for better) It appears the entrapper is now also the entrapped.
Uncle Ivan, aware of her physical appeal, steely nerves, discipline, and determination for survival, sends her to Sparrow school. The innocuous name belies the malevolent nature of this education. Headed by a stern and intimidating Matron (Charlotte Rampling, who knows a thing or two about portraying manipulative sexuality), the women and men are schooled to use their bodies as instruments for uncovering secrets and maximum coercion. This provides options for the film to present some fairly graphic prurient scenes of humiliation and mind control. At any rate, Dominika lives up to her name, and proves to be inventive and as talented at this as she was as a dancer and is soon sent into the field. She is dispatched to Budapest to interact with an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), to try to uncover a suspected mole in the Russian secret service. And now the plotting gets really tangled and serpentine. Suffice it to say - violence and torture ensue.
Other characters in the ensemble cast include two Russian spy masters in cameo roles perfectly played by Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons, who are all possible moles. There is also a corrupt Chief-of-Staff to an American Senator (Mary Louise Parker), who is taking bribes (sound familiar?). Not a likable group or an appealing picture of the authoritarian state. Naturally, there is a sexual connection between Nate and Dominika (not very convincing) as he tries to recruit her as a counter spy and tempts her with defection. By this time there is so much double-dealing one does not know whom to believe. But I will admit that I thought it was going to wrap up one way, which was a late plot twist, and was pleasantly surprised by being wrong. The film takes a long time to get to the ambiguous denouement at two hours and twenty minutes, in spite of being directed at a brisk clip. Matthias Schoenaerts is riveting to watch and could be a stand-in for Vladimir Putin with his taut skin and snake eyes, a portrait of cold-blooded ambition, but Jennifer Lawrence carries the day as she kicks ass and overcomes betrayals and brutality like a champion. Production values and cinematography are top notch making it visually appealing and ultimately entertaining enough.