What are Sparrows? In Francis Lawrence’s “Red Sparrow”, they are weaponized things of beauty, with lacerating jawlines, inviting curvatures, and a fatal allure to match. “Sparrows—weapons in a global struggle for power,” offers a steely woman (Charlotte Rampling), known only under the external intelligence sobriquet, the Matron, with unflinching detachment and nary a sense of solicitude typical of any and all school headmistresses. When a Sparrow-in-training makes the mistake of calling a corrupt Russian politician caught in an intimate moment with another man a “degenerate,” she calls her on, tells her to bend the knee, and perform fellatio on the politician himself, now a prisoner of the state. At the Sparrow School, curriculum is all-about human frailties, with as extreme extracurriculars include forcing yourself upon your sexual assailant in front of the class.
Such twisted presentations are as accurate as any measure of the inherent silliness of “Red Sparrow”, a spy thriller lodges its transgressions in a decidedly unhurried John le Carré-esque fashion. At its center is the titular Sparrow, an ex-ballerina named Dominika Egorova, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who gets lured into Russian espionage through about the same means as Katniss Everdeen had been caught in the wicked grips of a historical revisionist tradition in “The Hunger Games”. After a career-ending incident, Dominika’s S.V.R.-influential uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), offers her a lifelong stint she’s literally unable to say no to. “You sent me to whore school,” she comments crisply—before us is a ruthless, cheerless, manufactured monstress unfurling, in near-perfect condition, a product of the world as much of Mother Russia.
At 138 minutes, “Red Sparrow” is supremely watchable, and that’s due in equal parts to the two Lawrences at the back and in front of the screen. Francis Lawrence proves himself the able filmmaker, suffusing each interaction with weight and history. Jennifer Lawrence—as the film’s unbreakable heroine, Dominika—is terrific as she has always been, echoing the enduring, steel-skinned demeanor she had wielded around her characters in her earlier films like “The Hunger Games” and “Winter’s Bone”. When faced with crises, Dominika’s reactions are those of a human being than of a super-spy who lives and dies by her badassery. Preservation is the ultimate goal, not to be a dickless James Bond, and when she puts herself to work, it’s no short of amazing; in a key scene, she smooches her uncle, Egorov, feeding on his incestuous desires. “Didn’t I do good, uncle,” she teases fiercely, and walks away—a statement that ‘ya girl is at work. A delicious catharsis, a needful triumph.
From the outset, the conceit of weaponized seduction feels like a product of the mind of a thirteen-year-old. As a rule, stories that limit persuasion within the bounds of whoring out Greek-like specimens of wonders, I file under problematic. I have yet to read Jason Matthew’s novel on which the film is based, but there’s a proficiency to Justin Haythe’s screenplay here in the way that it skillfully maneuvers the plot into incisively zeitgeisty territory. All is well until we reach the film’s midsection in which Dominika is assigned to trail a handsome—and the film reiterates this, as if you haven’t already sunken deep into Joel Edgerton’s teal-tinged eyes, like yep, he’s handsome, uh, okay we get it, he’s dang fine–-CIA agent, Nate Nash. It’s here where the film tries to sell us on a lazily built romance between Dominika and Nate, along with a handful of staple espionage twists and double-crossings the film has yet to exhaust. All of which leads to a supposedly empowering and cathartic ending that leaves a spoiled aftertaste.
The film is technically incredible. Jo Willems’ skilled lensing, Jeremy Peirson’s crisp sound design, and Maria Djurkovic and Trish Summerville’s marvelous art production and costume-work all chip in to make a technically sound film but ultimately contribute nothing that alleviates the substantial damage of the film’s second half. If nothing else, “Red Sparrow” makes for a sprightly addition to both Francis and Jennifer Lawrence’s resumes.
2018 / Drama, Thriller / US
Direction: Francis Lawrence Screenplay: Francis Lawrence Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker
Ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited to ‘Sparrow School’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. But her first mission, targeting a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton), threatens to unravel the security of both nations.