Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence reunite for an espionage thriller. Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a young woman who loves her ailing mother, fears her sinister uncle (who happens to be the deputy head of the Russian security service) and has a promising career as a dancer. Once a violent leg injury puts an end to her dancing career she is enlisted by her uncle to help with a mission that culminates in an assassination. As a witness to the murder she is offered the choice to either die or become a sparrow.
The sparrows of the film are men and women trained to use seductive arts to extract information and, more typically it seems, open up an opportunity to stave someone’s head in. After a brisk training sequence she is tasked with her first mission, seducing an American agent (Joel Edgerton) and finding a mole in the Russian government.
Red Sparrow features a great deal of sexual content but is deliberately unerotic. Jennifer Lawrence appears nude in dispiriting training sequences where she uses her nudity to intimidate a fellow recruit and elsewhere during moments of torture or assault. Fellow critics appear either disappointed at how unsexy the film is (perhaps hoping for the erotic thrillers of the 80s and all the problematic nudity they entailed) or accuse it of being exploitative. The film cannot be said to be glamourizing the use of sexual tactics in espionage, nor are there any moments that feel like titillation. The only genuinely affectionate sexual act of the film is portrayed with no nudity.
Similarly the moments of violence in the film are graphic and upsetting. Fights are ended quickly with great pain. The effect of using sex and violence in this way is to build a labyrinth of dark motives and great danger which our hero seems destined to fall prey to.
Lawrence is, however, excellent in the lead role. She has great authority and presence when she needs to be intimidating and a dignified humility where she is required to suffer. She is almost constantly in control, despite the hopelessness of her situation, which makes for a compelling dynamic.
The cinematography and production design creates a world of lush colours. Gold-tinged opera houses and snow filled streets make the world feel far more glamorous than the awkward and gritty acts being carried out within. Few shots push the envelope in terms of innovation or daring, but the film certainly looks good.
Politically the film is keen to critique Russian society as a place of great oppression of women and a place where the services offered by the state serve to enslave the people in obligation. Dominika asks the CIA agent if things are better for women in the states. He replies that they are meant to be but probably aren’t. It’s reassuring to see some balance in a film and to see an espionage thriller challenging the assumptions of the genre. The only merit that differentiates the two sides is that Edgerton insists some measures are not worth the cost. The film is missing a Le Carre style ending in which our heroes are betrayed by the side they thought they could trust. America is definitely still the good guy, but it is mainly presented as being because of their lofty aspirations.
The strengths of the movie are a committed performance from Jennifer Lawrence, a satisfyingly duplicitous plot and an unflinching approach to the seedier sides of espionage. Faults include a lack of emotional engagement, some pacing issues and some plot contrivances. However the film is darkly entertaining and offers something a little grittier than most espionage thrillers.
4 / 5