Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts
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“Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything.” That’s Matron (Charlotte Rampling) at Sparrow School, where she teaches a group of young Russians to become spies, using their bodies as weapons. Top of the class? Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina who finds her career in tatters after an injury – and, with no way to support her sick mother, she turns to her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) for work, which winds up with her inducted in Matron’s twisted academy, with no choice or way out.
And so we’re forced, like her, to go through a bleak, grim, cruel ordeal, which involves abuse and humiliation – and that’s par for the course in what proves to be a perverse little thriller. By the time we reach the end credits, we’ve gone through rape, torture and other brutal behaviour – Red Sparrow is, in short, a nasty movie. Director Francis Lawrence does a good job at crafting the right kind of scuzzy mood, as we watch Dominika gradually reassert herself as the driving force of her narrative, but it’s not an easy or wholly satisfying ride; there’s an nagging suspicion that the movie is trying to have its cake and eat it, not quite finding a clear-cut line through the hazy genre cliches to separate empowerment and exploitation.
Jennifer Lawrence is impressively committed to the project, nailing her spy’s cold, unreadable stare and behaving with the kind of frosty intelligence required to manipulate others – and she’s matched well by a fragile, hangdog Joel Edgerton as the US agent she’s assigned to gather information from. Their chemistry, though, never gets the chance to spark fully, as the film is too busy drumming up the darkness (both visually and atmospherically) or finding its next moment of queasy violence, instead of fleshing out their relationship or individual motivations.
That the supporting cast is mostly made up of UK actors, such as Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds, rather than actual Russians, doesn’t help much in building a convincing world for our double-crossing duo to out-manoeuvre each other in; there’s a hint of artificiality throughout that, although fitting for a story of surface identities, stops you getting properly invested in what should be a gripping, unpredictable exchange of cat-and-mouse traps. What you’re left with is a Cold War-tinged thriller that can’t work out how cold or hot to play things: on the one hand, it comes across as a bold stab at subverting, or at least exploring, the sexist streak in traditional spy stories, but, on the other, it treads dated territory from B-movies released decades ago.
The surprise of a studio project being so deliberately dirty with it doesn’t outweigh the frustration of watching remote characters in a grisly story that’s either missing a sense of heart or even crazier genre flourishes. Lawrence’s Dominika is a shrewd operative with a knack for analysing her targets, but even after 150 minutes, Red Sparrow still feels like it doesn’t know what it needs.
Red Sparrow is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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