Directed by Francis Lawrence
After making it big with family-friendly films, it’s not uncommon for an actor to quickly distance themselves from the role that made them most famous. Daniel Radcliffe went onstage to strip off, before playing a demon and running round a haunted mansion, Robert Pattison started hanging out with Cronenberg and Elijah Wood visited Sin City. Here, starlet Jlaw teams up again with The Hunger Games sequels helmer Francis Lawrence (no relation), to play the part of Russian ex-ballerina turned spy Dominika Egorova, in a gritty espionage thriller.
From a career-ending (and ear-covering) broken leg at the start, which is juxtaposed with a tense chase through the streets of Moscow, this is as uncompromising thriller from the offset. With bills to pay, and a sick mother to support, Dominkiais soon taken under her morally dubious uncle’s wing to become a red sparrow. Loosely based on the Red Swallows, a seductress division of Russian intelligence, the Sparrows teaches what Liam Neeson would call a unique set of skills. Flippantly referred to as ‘whore school’, the academy fronted by Matron (an excellently frosty Charlotte Rampling) instructs its host of attractive young people to switch off emotionally, giving everything to their targets so as to gain their trust in a honey trap (oh, and a bit of lockpicking). Upon graduation, her first assignment is Nate Nash (Edgerton): a CIA agent with a secret informant. To uncover his mole, she has to get under the covers with him then turn him in. Something that should be easy enough if he wasn’t so darn likeable. But hey, all’s fair in love and the new cold war.
The concept itself is cool as the plains of Siberia, but the subtext it fumbles with throughout is hit and miss. At points it’s extremely relevant, focusing on the systematic abuse of attractive young women by powerful men. Having read Lawrence’s stories about working with ‘horrible boil’ Harvey Weinstein, it’s hard not to think of him during an especially nasty sequence in the hotel. To its credit, the scenes with nudity don’t feel gratuitous, with one in particular being a contender for the year’s least sexy. Yet the parallels between performance in the entertainment industry, prostitution, authoritarianism and working for the Russian state (which she is promptly reminded her body ultimately belongs to) are confused and underdeveloped. Sometimes the themes converge neatly, yet when they are most at the forefront it watches like the work of a chef who is not mixing their ingredients properly. Moreover, by equipping Dominkia with her body and sexuality as her arsenal, Red Sparrow potentially satirises the roles for women in spy thrillers. In that respect it’s rewarding to see her push against the parameters of another Bond girl part, of only being there to be ogled. However, this interpretation may be generous considering how much of the movie is dedicated to her degradation.
Dominkia is put through a lot: she’s beaten, tortured and even raped. Yet it’s odd to see such a detached narrative, with us rarely getting below of the surface of Lawrence’s reserved performance. This is not a criticism of her work, as accent aside she handles the material well and gets across her character’s conflict. It’s just hard not to miss her trademark tenacity. Joel Edgerton is solid as usual, once again using the saddest eyes in Hollywood to convey far more about his character than his dialogue does. Yet unfortunately the two leads share minimal chemistry, with their scenes together lacking the emotional weight that is essential to selling the third act. However, the lack of drama is partially owed to a script that ditches their cat and mouse angle far too quickly, with each soon telling the other everything and robbing the plot of a potentially exciting strand.
This brings me to the clumsiness of the third act. Whilst it’s not without its twists and turns, particularly in the last ten minutes, it could have done with far greater ambiguity about its central players’ agendas. For much of the last 45 minutes it feels fairly streamlined with the sexpionage angle, that provides the movie’s unique selling point, dropped for a more generic spy formula. I never quite reached watch-checking mode, but then nor could I say I was still immersed when the revelations which should have wowed me came with little in the way of impact. Supposedly the initial cut was close to four hours, and at just over two it still feels very long in the tooth. That being said, I still would have liked to see the fat trimmed, and more added to the academy bits towards the beginning which were both the least conventional and most engaging scenes.
Still, there’s much to like here. Visually, Red Sparrow is a triumph. It’s at times thick with atmosphere, and it’s great to see so much of it shot on location around London and Budapest. Although low on explosions and gun-play, one or two scenes can also get the pulse racing, albeit not in the way younger audience members may hope (a highlight sees the floppy disc brought back from the dead for a bit of edge of the seat downloading). The unflinching way that it depicts its scenes of gore and violence are also refreshing in these days of sanitised, superhero blockbusters: this is an unashamedly adult film. Needless to say it also really pushes the boundaries of its 15 certificate to the point I’m not sure how it got away with such graphic content in some places. Thus those expecting it to resemble Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow may be disappointed. Consequently, with its combo of captivating premise and hard style, it’s actually one of the more interesting big-budget studio films of recent years. But unfortunately the longer you stay with it, the less case there is for it being among the most exciting.