Red Sparrow Review
It's a case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Hair Dye for Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, a Russian agent trained to weaponise her mind and body to seduce enemies of the state. While it's hardly the sort of thing you'd expect from the pen of John le Carré (the film is actually an adaptation of Jason Matthews’ novel of the same name) it does attempt to pace itself in a similar manner, shaping a slow burn spy drama with an emphasis on character over action.
Although Matthews’ novel found success back in 2013, production on Red Sparrow began in early 2017 at a time when accusations of Russian interference in the US elections were coming to the fore. While the idea of national interference only ever slightly comes into focus, the film still readily reinforces outdated Russian stereotypes as seen through the eyes of America. We have Nathanial Nash (Joel Edgerton) representing the triumphant leaders of the free world, while Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is the oppressed serf kept under the tight control of her Russian masters.
Given the reports of a broken rib on the set of Aronofsky’s mother!, no-one could ever accuse Lawrence of lack of commitment. That shines through in the early scenes which sees her pirouetting across the stage as a ballerina, and although it is only her upper body used throughout the six minute sequence, she makes it seem convincing enough. This is shortly before an accident on stage leaves Dominika’s career in tatters and the threat of destitution suddenly looms large over both her and mother Nina (Joely Richardson).
Elsewhere in Russia, CIA agent Nash narrowly escapes capture by the Russian authorities as he attempts to protect his government insider. Admonished by his superiors back in the US, it isn’t long before he is back in Hungary, trying to coax his Russian mole out of hiding. Dominika’s attempts to survive see her manipulated into working for the state by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts). She ends up at “sparrow school" where she is turned into a seductress by a steely-faced matron (Charlotte Rampling), in a programme designed to target spies out in the field. Several naked scenes later, Dominika is given her first operation: seduce Nash and uncover the name of the Russian mole.
Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) oversees a slow ticking mystery that never manages to earn the full 140 minutes it spends up on screen. While credit must be given for attempting something a little more serious than just knocking together a carbon copy of Atomic Blonde, the writing lacks the complexity needed to make the most of the time available. A series of plot twists and turns eventually creep out of the woodwork which are neither credible or come as much of a surprise. None of which is taking into account the use of sexuality in a film that suggests the abuse suffered by Dominika is eventually turned on its head to her advantage. The idea that there are a team of secret male and female spies trained to robotically use their bodies in the name of Russia is ludicrous enough, but we could do without the gratuitous use of Lawrence’s body as it tries to reinforce the point.
Lawrence carries herself well in the role, even offering a passable enough Russian accent, though you wonder if a different actress could’ve brought more to the character. Dominika is difficult to read and keeps her inner trauma buried inside, and while not helped by the writing, Lawrence isn't able to add further dimension to the words on the page. Schoenaerts is functional, while Jeremy Irons sleepwalks through his role, and with so many of the accents butchered by the cast you might have to double check you aren't actually watching Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin.
While the overt use of female sexuality used in the film is a problem it’s not enough to render Red Sparrow a bad film. The weighty pacing is far more responsible for making it a difficult watch, despite Francis Lawrence's direction aiming for something a little more considered. More interestingly, how this performs at the box office adds an unexpected layer of intrigue rarely found in the film itself. You would assume that the presence of Lawrence should be enough, but the lack of success enjoyed by a growing number of adult-orientated blockbusters has seen companies like Paramount ditch productions to avoid further heavy losses. While Red Sparrow struggles to find its wings, this will prove to be another battle in the ongoing war between multiplex cinema and home streaming services.