7 out of 10
Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova
Joel Edgerton as Nathaniel Nash
Matthias Schoenaerts as Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov
Jeremy Irons as General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi
Charlotte Rampling as Matron
Mary-Louise Parker as Stephanie Boucher
Ciaran Hinds as Colonel Alexei Ivanovich Zyuganov
Bill Camp as Marty Gable
Joely Richardson as Nina Egorova
Sakina Jaffrey as Trish Forsyth
Thekla Reuten as Marta Yelenova
Douglas Hodge as Maxim Volontov
Sasha Frolova as Anya
Kristof Konrad as Dimitri Ustinov
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence’s take on the classic spy thriller fills a much-needed gap for adult-oriented, thinking thrills even if it loses its nerve at the end. Eschewing the car chases, quips and gun fights of its James Bond and Jason Bourne brethren, Lawrence’s re-teaming with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation) prefers to focus on the humdrum craft of espionage and the emotional toll it can take. The end result may seem slow if action and excitement are the main things you’re looking for out of a thriller, but with patience it offers greater rewards than adrenaline in a way spy movies should but often don’t.
Adapted from former CIA officer Jason Matthews’ celebrated first novel, Lawrence (the actor one, not the director one) stars as Dominika Egorova, a former prima donna ballerina recruited by her uncle (Schoenaerts) to be a spy for the Russian government after her dancing career is ended. Sent to the secretive Sparrow school, she and her classmates are taught how to seduce anyone and pry their secrets from them.
Which means what Red Sparrow doesn’t have to offer with bullets it attempts to make up for with sex, with mixed results. When it comes to adult material handled adult-ly (as opposed to whatever it is something like Fifty Shades is doing), the line between relevant and prurient is extremely thin. The Sparrow training program seeks to objectify sex, reduce it to an action devoid of context or emotion and in the process do the same to its agents. As a practical matter, this means quite a bit of male gaze (and some female) and general dehumanization aimed at Dominika even as she attempts to gain agency over herself in a world where human beings are the ultimate commodity and are treated as such – used up and disposed of as needed. The attempt to have it both ways and the need to keep Dominika’s motives ambiguous makes the sex and seduction come off as arbitrary as often as it does essential and risks pushing it out of the grounded realism the rest of the film trades in.
Whenever Red Sparrow leaves the bedroom and returns to the streets, everything gets better (though even there it runs into trouble). Matthews clearly knows of what he writes and the filmmakers have wisely stayed true to that world even when it means slowing the pace down. From the repeated walks through parks and city centers tracking targets to the coded conversations and occasionally absurd bungling at key moments, the verisimilitude of the real spy trade shines through. There are no rooms full of laptops and flat screens, no facial recognition software that can identify someone from an ATM camera across the street… just people trying to figure it why other people are doing what they’re doing. It is one of the essential human questions – how well can I know someone other than me – which has made spy literature so engaging for so long and one which Red Sparrow attempts to embrace. But it’s not exactly thrill a minute unless you consider the human drama reflecting questions of intimacy and how it works thrilling (and you should). There’s a lot more John Le Carre and Graham Greene than there is Robert Ludlum or Ian Fleming in Red Sparrow and that’s a good thing.
As a sop to the very obvious slowness, this involves the plot does eventually start to amble around like a drunk after closing time. It knows more or less where it needs to go but getting there takes some doing. Initially extremely straightforward – there’s a mole and if Dominika wants to keep her mother in good health she’ll find out who he is – subplots soon beget subplots as she starts to veer off to buy missile plans from an American turncoat (on floppy disks. FLOPPY DISKS!! And no, this is not a period piece.) and keep her misogynistic station chief in check. It’s the nature of the spy story to offer up feints and red herrings and double crosses inside double crosses, but the more complex the flowchart becomes the easier it is to stop caring about it. Red Sparrow isn’t so complicated that you can’t keep track of it; it is just complicated enough that you might not want to. Especially as the plot twists take you further and further from the core question of what does Dominika want and who is going to double cross to get it.
None of which means it doesn’t work as intended; mostly it does. Lawrence (the director one, not the actor one) has assembled a top tier cast and crew and he knows how to stage a thrilling scene for utmost excitement. An early rendezvous between Dominika and one of her targets is masterful in carefully built suspense – quiet when it needs to be, loud when it has to be – with turns and payoffs happening regularly and yet never feeling rushed. It could do with more scenes like that than it has but the wait is (usually) worth it. The supporting actors are equally strong, particularly Jeremy Irons as a menacing Soviet spymaster and Schoenaerts as a different menacing Soviet spymaster. But make no mistake; this film is fully on Jennifer Lawrence’s shoulders as she tracks Dominika from embittered (relative) innocent to experienced case offer who can read the people around her like a book. Lawrence goes in whole hog with Dominika and it shows – it’s as committed a piece of work as she has ever done, not just for how much she bares but for how she holds back. It’s a difficult line to work and Lawrence (both of them) handles it admirably.
It would be better if the rest of the movie were worthy of the effort, but compared to what we normally get for the genre, much of Red Sparrow is a worthwhile change of pace. The plot is overly convoluted and the central relationship between Nate and Dominika needs more fleshing out (it’s one of the casualties to the plot), but the goal is a good one and everyone involved is trying their best to reach it even if they go off target from time to time.