Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Joely Richardson
On the surface, Red Sparrow appears to be just another movie about a woman using her wiles to seduce men for her own gain and/or the gain of other men. Adding in espionage aspects and extremely violent streaks might give it some intrigue, not to mention the attention it may draw due to the extent that Russia and its covert operations and politics have recently been very much in the public eye, but can it be relied on to show something a little different than films of a similar vein, or is this just another book adaptation playing on the current political climate?
Based on the novel by Jason Matthews, the story follows Moscow native Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a ballerina who, after an accident that renders her unable to dance again, is offered employment by her uncle Ivan (Schoenaerts) to work as an intelligence officer for the state. After witnessing a murder that she wasn’t supposed to, Dominika is forced into the permanent employ of the state or face death, which would also mean her sick mother would no longer be supported. She is trained as a Sparrow, taught how to put her own emotions aside and give herself entirely to seducing for information. She is eventually tasked with seducing CIA agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) to find out who the mole is that is passing Russian secrets to the CIA.
Whilst the plot itself is initially intriguing, Francis Lawrence’s film is, as many a critic has put it, all style and no substance. Despite being 140 minutes long it still feels crammed with information that forces you to keep up with it (the novel consists of a few narrators but the film concentrates mostly on Dominika and, from time to time, Nate). There are some aspects that could have been cut, such as Dominika’s ballet background – it is rarely brought up again, has no effect on her future employment and the injury she sustained that forced her out of ballet is also not brought up again, and nor does it have any long-lasting effect on her physically, which is surprisingly unrealistic. She could just as easily have lost a simple job and looked to her uncle for help. The same goes for her sick mother – other than giving Dominika a loose reason for her motives and a reason for the audience to feel a weak empathy, she could also have witnessed the murder and put her life on the line and have everything play out in just the same way. It seems that perhaps too much of the book has been forced into an unnecessarily long screenplay.
The violence, both physical and sexual, is obviously a big theme in the film and a primary point of marketing. A lot of audiences will see this film due to hearsay about its graphic nature, and they certainly won’t be disappointed. A particularly violent sequence was cut in order to give the film a 15 certificate in the UK (though it’ll likely appear on an extended DVD cut), which says it all. It’s not too often gratuitous, as most cases of nudity and/or sexual conduct are justified by the story, but the story itself doesn’t always necessitate the extent of its violence, such as an incident toward the beginning of the film when Dominika unleashes some inner anger. Her character up until that point in no way led us to believe she would be capable of such a thing – her care for her mother and her literal and metaphorical grace as a ballerina lead us to believe the opposite. It’s as though screenwriter Justin Haythe decided to skip the trials a person would undergo that would alter their personality and mental state to such an extent as to cause them to turn to violent measures. There was never any real explanation for Dominika’s change in character. Perhaps the brief storylines of her balletic past and her sick mother could instead have been substituted for Dominika’s character development.
In spite of the unnecessary length and the austere tone, the style of the film, as mentioned, is quite appealing. The shots in and around Hungary, Budapest and Slovakia show off some of the beautiful architecture and glimpses of uniquely European landscape bring a beauty to an otherwise bleak world. At times, Jo Willem’s cinematography captures something more than just the characters in shot, which gives a more interesting aesthetic when the characters are behaving rather blandly. Some of the close-ups on Lawrence’s face allow for glimpses of emotion that are few and far between but appreciated when they are there. It also reveals just how underused Lawrence is in the film: she is a talented actress but the role of Dominika seems below her, her range far outdoing anything this film could offer her. She does a fine job of what she is given, but is worthy of much better; to go from Darren Aronofsky’s mother! to this seems a significant step down. (Aronofsky himself was originally intended to direct Red Sparrow.) Edgerton also does just fine as Nate Nash, however again this is below his paygrade. Boasting other well-respected actors such as Jeremy Irons and Joely Richardson quite likely assisted in getting the film’s name out, but it just doesn’t quite feel on par to the weighty talent of its star-studded cast.
Perhaps its controversial relevance in current culture ought to be mentioned. Red Sparrow does nothing for US-Russian relations, making the Russians and their ideals appear just as Westerners see them: cold, harsh and unrelentingly patriotic. Ivan, his colleagues and superiors represent that Western view; Dominika is an advertisement to Russians on how defecting to Western principles could save their lives, both literally and figuratively; Nate is how America sees itself: the hero amongst the evils of the world. It wouldn’t be a total surprise if the film were to be banned in Russia all together, particularly with the US currently siding with the UK over the recent poisoning of a Russian double-agent living in the UK (the lines between fact and fiction here are getting startlingly blurred). Putin appears in the novel but was cut from the screenplay, which was probably a good call. It’s very muddy waters in which all should tread very carefully lest we allow history to repeat itself in another world war (it seems extreme but humanity has proven time and again that pride and stupidity often prevails).
Red Sparrow, as dangerously relevant as it may be, feels like something that has just been rushed out in order to capitalise on its relevance and perhaps even stir up some further controversy. Apparently Matthews, the book’s writer, had sold the film rights before he’d even finished writing, which could be seen as an attempt to push out a relevant story as soon as possible, Hollywood having its say on current political issues, as it likes to do. There was a time when you could watch a Bond film and know it was almost entirely fictional: these days it’s hard to watch any spy film without wondering if that is truly what is going on in the world. We know what’s going on in the world because the media shoves it in our faces 24/7. In that sense it’s a difficult film to indulge in unless you are more interested in learning about issues that link to what is going on outside the cinema than escapism. Perhaps if it had been more streamlined it could have been a more enjoyable watch, but for the most part, Red Sparrow doesn’t quite fly all the way.