Movie Review: Red Sparrow
Jennifer Lawrence has trouble with a Slavic accent, but she nails the emotional conflict and physicality of a ballet dancer turned sex spy in Francis Lawrence’s Cold War thriller that feels like a return to the good old bad days
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joely Richardson
directed by: Francis Lawrence
Running time: 2 hrs 19 mins
By Katherine Monk
Jennifer Lawrence and Francis Lawrence got through the Hunger Games together. Now, the director and his reliable muse have entered the Cold War. And, one might add, just in time.
Red Sparrow is a throwback to old-fashioned, pre-Glasnost spy thriller paradigms, where the Russian bad guys work for the state, and train intelligence officers and other recruits in various forms of manipulation and blackmail in order to further the position of the Kremlin.
When the Berlin Wall came down, things got a little fuzzy. For everyone. Especially the spies, like Jason Matthews, a 33-year employee of the CIA who retired from the business of espionage and started writing novels. Red Sparrow is first of a trilogy, and standing at the heart of this nascent franchise is action-movie combat veteran, Jennifer Lawrence, who takes on another female character with a score to settle, and a social injustice to rectify via any means possible.
Dominika Egorova trained her entire life to be a ballet dancer for the Bolshoi, yet when an injury ends her career, she has nowhere else to turn for support but her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a dark-suited government executive who sends her to ‘sparrow school.’
Sparrows are trained courtesans and government operatives. Their whole job is to use sex to elicit secrets. It sounds unbelievable, but out of all the things Red Sparrow makes up, “honeypot school” — as it’s called, is not one of them.
Matthews was fascinated by the softer side of espionage, and as a result, Red Sparrow is a film that uses emotional drama instead of violence to move the plot forward. We trace Domenika’s transformation from broken bird to fiery phoenix, without knowing which side of the fence she will finally land.
On one side of the DMZ is her family and her entire upbringing as a servant to the state. On the other is the abstract concept of freedom represented by the US, and its ever-loyal agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton).
The tension feels a little mechanical, but it’s there. Yet it doesn’t click the way we’re used to because the lead is female, the main weapon is sexuality and the moral needle never points in any clear direction. This could leave action fans frustrated, but if you give yourself a chance to squirm alongside Domenika, you start to experience a different kind of threat — and power.
The tension feels a little mechanical, but it’s there. Yet it doesn’t click the way we’re used to because the lead is female, the main weapon is sexuality and the moral needle never points in any clear direction.
Lawrence had to be okay with being nude in some of the scenes. It was uncomfortable for her, and it’s uncomfortable for us. We actually don’t want to see them naked. They become too human. Yet, that’s the journey at the heart of Red Sparrow — as Domenika navigates her fear and power through her body. It was also a journey for Lawrence, who says in the press notes: “[Domenika], to me, seems like a complex modern heroine, she uses her own rules, and has a tenacity to succeed.”
It’s a tough twist for a woman to feel empowered through exploitation. It means imbibing masculine rules of evaluation, and displacing them with your own intelligence and confidence. Lawrence embodies the emotions perfectly. It’s the accent that has some trouble and sets Red Sparrow into the window, landing in a daze on the floor. It brings an unintended comic edge to the whole thing, but it still works because the campiness flatters the Russian content.
Matthias Schoenaerts actually starts to look like Putin on a good day, and Jeremy Irons brings an old-style Stalinist flare to his military man in sunglasses. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say Red Sparrow was based on a comic book or graphic novel.
Everything about it feels a little two-dimensional and the characters are all larger-than-life. Yet, written by an actual former CIA agent, Red Sparrow is about as close to truth as Hollywood fiction can muster. So buckle up, this story of blackmail, espionage and sex tapes is just getting started.
THE EX-PRESS, March 2, 2018