March 2024

Red Sparrow (2018)

DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Mary-Louise Parker


For those seeking something a little less action-oriented and a little more nitty gritty than James Bond without being as cerebral as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Red Sparrow (an adaptation of the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews) is an unflinchingly hard-R, unglamorous espionage thriller that serves up enough twists, turns, sex, and violence to hold the viewer’s attention for its 140-minute runtime.

The initially somewhat confusing prologue cuts back-and-forth between two characters having very different nights.  Prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), the pride of Russia’s premier ballet company, is performing in front of a packed house, while over in Gorky Park, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is meeting with a Russian informant when the police show up.  Nate makes a narrow escape into the US embassy, but is suspended from further field operations for drawing unwanted attention to the CIA’s espionage activities in Russia.  Meanwhile, Dominika’s lifelong ballet dreams crash and burn when she suffers a career-ending accident onstage, leaving her without means to care for her sickly mother (Joely Richardson).  But dubious “help” arrives in the form of her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking intelligence official who dangles the impossible-to-resist carrot of ensuring government healthcare for Dominika’s mother if Dominika carries out a seemingly simple assignment for him.  But Ivan is not being fully forthcoming, and soon Dominika is in way over her head and being shipped off to a spy school run by the nameless Matron (Charlotte Rampling), where she and the other cadets are trained in espionage, psychological manipulation, and the art of seduction, training Dominika initially balks at but eventually shows an aptitude for.  Meanwhile, Nate gets back into the game when his skittish Russian informant refuses to surface for anyone else, and Ivan and his superiors (Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons) give Dominika an assignment: get close to Nate—by any methods necessary—and find out the identity of his informant.  But Nate sees straight through Dominika (or at least he thinks he does) and makes a counter-offer: turn double agent for him against her own uncle and his superiors, in exchange for his help defecting to the USA.

Red Sparrow is not for the prudish or squeamish.  Sex and violence are integral to the story, and the movie doesn’t shy away from them.  Neither the sex or violence is anything more extreme than we’ve seen in plenty of other R-rated movies (apart from a brief flash of full frontal male nudity, in a non-sexual context), but it’s presented frankly and unflinchingly, including a cringe-inducing torture scene.  It’s not an action movie—there’s bits of action, but they’re in short bursts, few and far between—but it serves up a twisty-turny plot that maintains a level of uncertainty without going to the labyrinthine, murky extremes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Atomic Blonde.  Red Sparrow, while demanding a level of attention, is more accessible than the likes of Tinker Tailor and keeps a nice balance of being complicated enough to keep the audience guessing without being so much so that they get hopelessly lost.  While the movie has the vibe of an ’80s Cold War spy thriller, its present day setting suggests the Cold War might not be quite so over after all, without delving into current politics (the Russian President is mentioned several times in passing, but never by name).  The most ambiguous aspect is the dynamic between Dominika and Nate.  When Dominika shows up at Nate’s apartment in tears, are they sincere or is she playing on his sympathy?  We’re not completely sure, just as we’re not certain whether feelings are actually developing between them or if they’re just vying to keep the upper hand in a game of seduction and counter-seduction.  Insofar as she is on anyone’s “side”, Dominika might simply be on her own, a normal girl thrust unwillingly into a deadly chess game and unlocking the wherewithal to do whatever she must for her own survival.

Jennifer Lawrence (reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, no relation), donning a Russian accent and several varying hair colors over the course of the movie, demonstrates her commitment to the lead role by getting battered and bruised, working out and rehearsing with a dance team enough to be credible in the opening ballet number (albeit with the help of a dance double, with a little visual effects trickery to splice them seamlessly together), and not only performing nude for the first time in her career but doing it in less-than-sexy context, including while getting brutally tortured (she shows more skin in the torture scene than she does while getting it on with Joel Edgerton).  Lawrence’s performance is by turns tough, vulnerable, and inscrutable, accentuating our uncertainty about when we’re seeing the real Dominika and when we’re watching an act.  Joel Edgerton is an effective counterpart as the more straightforward Nate, who’s not an idiot (he’s not at all fooled by Dominika “casually” making his acquaintance at a public swimming pool) but whose tendency to get emotionally invested in his contacts represents a vulnerable spot that might give Dominika an “in”.  Matthias Schoenaerts, looking considerably more debonair than as Noomi Rapace’s skeevy ex in The Drop, plays Dominika’s not-so-kindly uncle with a smooth, suave veiled menace (at least in this role, Schoenaerts is a little reminiscent of Mads Mikkelsen).  The capable supporting cast includes Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons as his Russian intelligence superiors, Charlotte Rampling as the stern, nameless Matron, Joely Richardson as Dominika’s invalid mother, Mary-Louise Parker as an American embassy official leaking information to the Russians, Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey as Nate’s CIA superiors, and Sergej Onopko who is suitably nasty as a sadistic hitman who serves as one of Russian intelligence’s go-to executioners.

In some ways, Red Sparrow serves as an interesting counterpart to the recent Atomic Blonde, both spy thrillers with hardcore well-earned R ratings and led by female heroines (or anti-heroines, at least) but Atomic Blonde was style over substance, employing visual razzle dazzle and a higher action quotient of Charlize Theron going into Jason Bourne mode to soup up a murky muddled plot.  Red Sparrow is more nitty gritty and down-to-earth, less flashy but ultimately a fuller more satisfying experience.  Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t get to kick as much ass as Charlize Theron or look as glamorous while doing it, but her character is better-developed.  The level of ambiguity gives us a hook, and the ensuing twists and turns keep us engaged for the entire two hour plus runtime without overdoing it to the point where it’s overly difficult to follow.  For those who enjoy these sorts of spy thrillers with the requisite double-crossing and surprise twists and aren’t discomfited by sex and violence, Red Sparrow is a worthy entry.

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