Review: Red Sparrow

Director: Francis Lawrence

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Edgerton

Director Francis Lawrence and the star of his three Hunger Games features, Jennifer Lawrence, reunite for something altogether different (yet naggingly familiar) with this smooth, slick and wholly soulless spy thriller based on a book by Jason Matthews.

J-Law stars as Dominika Egorova, a renowned Bolshoi ballet dancer living in Russia whose life is thrown into disarray when an injury abruptly ends her prestigious career. With a sick mother to care for, Dominika finds herself pressed into an uncomfortable situation, as her leering uncle Vanya (yes, really, and played by Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a possible solution; become a spy for the state; a sparrow. Or, as Dominika more bluntly puts it, go to “whore school”.

Vanya’s intent is for her to pass the rigorous and frequently demeaning training so that she can be inserted into his plans to root out a mole in their organisation. At the other end of this tale is Joel Edgerton’s CIA man Nate Nash. Dominika is to make contact and seduce the identity of the mole from him. What follows is the expected sinuous web of double-crosses. Honestly, it’s as if the Cold War never ended.

The plot and its machinations are cookie-cutter, but the vantage point of a sparrow has quite the potential.  Imagine a 007 movie where the Bond girl was the lead, and every bit as authoritative of her sexual dominance? Such a thing could be a stirring feminist battle cry, and Jennifer Lawrence has the wherewithal to pull it off, but unfortunately Red Sparrow isn’t that movie.

Instead this very quickly becomes a tawdry and tiring tread through female objectification and punishment seen from a distinctly male gaze. Dominika is taught to use her sexuality as a weapon, yet her authority and ownership of it is rarely given credence. She is repeatedly demeaned, tortured and sexually assaulted throughout the span of the movie, with plot turns increasingly engineered to facilitate these gruelling experiences. It isn’t all that far removed from the seedier end of the 70’s exploitation set or, for that matter, Lars Von Trier’s compulsive urge to subjugate his heroines.

Such trials by fire have become part and parcel of cinema, but with the accelerating rise of campaigns like #MeToo or Time’s Up, Red Sparrow suddenly feels as though it’s arrived at precisely the wrong moment.

There is an argument to be made that the movie can be read as a response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and the many similar ones that have appeared in its wake), as the broader plot allows Dominika the opportunity to get even with the men who have caused her varying abuses, but neither Lawrence bring any sense of urgency to this avenue of inquiry. It’s too half-hearted and besides, those horses bolted long after this production got underway.

The meekness of Red Sparrow doesn’t end there. There’s little discerning a scene that’s trying to feel tense from one that’s trying to feel triumphant. Everything here is painted in detached monotone. One supposes this is an effort to make the film seem imposing or serious – something with gravitas – but instead the main response it evokes is ambivalence. And two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to be kept in the cold.

This isn’t an action piece in the vein of last year’s Atomic Blonde, but who knows what it is instead? It’s certainly no thriller. No thrills are elicited. And it fails as a drama because it barely convinces at any given moment.

Part of this may be down to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, not that she is at fault. I admire the loyalty, but it may not have been the best call. Her star power is supreme, and she puts her usual gusto into this (as much as her director allows to show, at least), but she feels miscast. The falseness of her Russian accent clangs the whole way, as if her celebrity status didn’t jolt us out of the lie already. It undoes the film almost as soon as its begun.

What’s more, try as he might to ground his movie in some semblance of reality, Francis Lawrence shies from incisively deciding how far to take us. One senses that he wants Red Sparrow to be edgy and shocking, with its celebrity skin and celebrity skin-grafting, but all the while his film retains that same Hollywood gleam that typified much of The Hunger Games. His is a 15 certificate movie with a 12 certificate sensibility. He never truly gets down and dirty to the degree that the material clearly yearns for. This makes the more sordid elements of Red Sparrow seem unintentionally glossy or glamourised. There is absolutely no edge to this. Consider it the Fifty Shades of torture-porn.

There’s just about enough here to stop it from being a total loss. In spite of the relentless objectification, the resilience and steeliness of Dominika garners easily won respect. But liking her is another matter entirely. Her motives are as cliché as her humiliations and like everything here, conspicuously void of fire or passion. Ugly yet also neutered, its tough to know who will feel satisfied here. Unlike its central character, what Red Sparrow ultimately lacks is some backbone.

Score:  2

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