Andrew Carroll takes a bird’s eye view on Francis Lawrence’s hollow spy thriller.
Pain and injury visited on the female body has a long and storied history in cinema. It also proves to be very popular unfortunately. One only needs to look at the critical and commercial success of the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario and Atomic Blonde. The difference between these films and Red Sparrow is that the women in the former films all maintain some degree of choice or agency. Dominika, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, does not and no matter how much the film attempts to convince us otherwise it all ultimately rings hollow.
Dominika is a former ballerina who, after an injury, is forced to look for other methods to care for her ailing mother. Her uncle Ivan (a scarily Putinesque Mathias Schoenaerts) offers her training as Sparrow, a seductive spy, so that her mother may continue to benefit from state care. Dominika is trained and sent to Budapest to uncover an American mole in the Russian intelligence service. Included in the mix is CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who attempts to recruit Dominika. What follows is overly long and attempts twists that result in the film nearly going off the rails at several points.
Continuously we are told that Dominika doesn’t have a choice; that she must be in the employ of cruel and sadistic spymasters. There are better and easier ways to care for an invalid relative even in Russia surely? Despite being trained as a seductress extraordinaire Dominika does very few unsavoury things, but a great deal of unsavouriness is brought down on her. From awkward sex scenes to rapeand on to torture Red Sparrow puts Dominika through a great deal, and none of it is necessary. Throughout the whole thing I just felt sorry for Jennifer Lawrence.
Director Francis Lawrence shoots what little action there is with a focussed brutality. A great deal of the fight scenes take place with one or more naked characters which is always tenser considering how vulnerable the naked body is. This would be fine if we cared about any of the characters at all. A fake Russian accent is always a bit of a turnoff and Jennifer Lawrence is no Meryl Streep when it comes to accents. The only convincing Russian in the whole film is Schoenaert’s; meanwhile Edgerton doesn’t even make for a convincing American. Others, such as Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons, phone it in, which is surprising considering all they do is talk and smoke.
The story meanwhile is as bad as those telling it. This is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as told from the perspective of Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye. It aims for a highly intelligent kind of spy thriller but with dialogue this banal and characters this simple it can’t hope to achieve much. Anyone hoping for a stylish, fluid action thriller a la John Wick or Atomic Blonde will be sorely disappointed. Despite the occasional glimmers of style, Red Sparrow flies right past dumb fun and smacks right into dumb.
Red Sparrow feels very by the numbers. Its plot seems to be following a requisite number of twists and expository moments interspersed with some truly horrible scenes of sadistic violence. This film is not for the faint of heart. At the beginning a drill whirrs into bone. That sets the tone for the rest of Red Sparrow – now if only the story was less painful than its torture scenes.