RED SPARROW – a lofty goal, but a misfire

Red Sparrow has top notch actors and a story which keeps you guessing. It’s just what you want in an espionage movie, but it doesn’t work.

Despite all it has going for it, it doesn’t engage, and at times it drags. Part of the reason may simply be that spy stories are by their very nature about people who hide their true feelings and motivations. If a film maker fails to draw you in, then all that subterfuge can leave you second guessing too much, and not caring about what happens to the characters. Sadly Red Sparrow falls into this category, but there’s more to it than that.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, who we first meet as a highly admired Russian ballerina. She lives at home and cares for her unwell mother Nina, played by Joely Richardson. And we meet her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) a high ranking official in the security service.

An incident on stage ends Dominika’s career and she is effectively given little choice – her uncle is behind this – but to go off to a Red Sparrow training school, to be a seductress for the state. Under the tutelage of Matron (Charlotte Rampling) she and the other students are taught how to pick locks and use sex to spy for Russia.

It becomes clear that Dominika has a talent for identifying weaknesses in other people, and targeting them to achieve her ends. Her first mission is to get close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and uncover the mole he is cultivating inside Russia.

And so we follow the intrigue of who is double crossing who, and how they do it.  Let’s be clear that Red Sparrow is an attempt at a serious espionage movie, more in tone with say The Spy Who Came in from the Cold than an early James Bond escapade. The actors play their roles straight, there’s little or no humour, the soundtrack is for the most part dark and orchestral, and the violence is brutal and hard to watch. You may have seen the movie poster and thought this was some kind of Marvel Black Widow movie. Rest assured it isn’t.

But it does have a true movie star in Jennifer Lawrence heading the cast, who’s had success both at the Oscars and the box office. And despite some fine performances from other actors, director Francis Lawrence seems intent on making this a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. So we see her beaten up, raped, getting naked, and generally psychologically and emotionally exploited by those around her. And because she’s a spy, she spends a lot of time with an impassive look on her face, silently enduring her torture. And the camera spends a lot of time on that face. Sure, that’s Lawrence’s character Dominika who endures all this, but it also feels like Lawrence herself has been taken advantage of. It’s like we’ve been invited to watch her have nasty things done to her, under a guise of a story about a spy.

Now I may be reacting this way in light of the current debate about the treatment of women in the workplace. Lawrence herself is aware of this and has suggested that we view the film solely as an entertainment, and that we put the news of the day to one side. Sorry, can’t do it.

The violence here deserves more comment because as used to it as we are in movies, some of it had me turning away from the screen. Around me, I could hear people squirming in their seats. The question is why depict it so shockingly? Well, to shock, and leave an impression. It certainly achieved that purpose, but not to the overall good of the film. You just felt appalled. I understand from other media that some filmgoers walked out, and you can see why.

But let’s end with a few positives. There are some very good turns from other actors. In particular I enjoyed the work of Matthias Schoenaerts as the uncle, Thekla Reuten as Marta, a fellow Russian spy, and Mary Louise Parker as Stephanie, an American bureaucrat caught up in the intrigue. And we have other heavyweights like Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds adding thespian heft to the tale.

But I left Red Sparrow feeling unsettled by the film. It is a story of a woman battling exploitation and seeking to rise above it. That’s a noble goal, but in the telling of the story, the exploitation leaves a taint.

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