Red Sparrow (2018)

  • Time: 140 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
  • Director: Francis Lawrence
  • Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling


A young Russian intelligence officer is assigned to seduce a first-tour CIA agent who handles the CIA’s most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence. The two young officers collide in a charged atmosphere of trade-craft, deception, and inevitably forbidden passion that threatens not just their lives but the lives of others as well.

3 reviews

  • Red Sparrow, based on the novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, introduces us to Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet who finds her career curtailed after her partner accidentally lands on her leg. With her apartment and ailing mother’s (Joely Richardson) medical care no longer funded by the state, Dominika soon finds herself a reluctant performer on an altogether different stage.

    Red Sparrow unexpectedly surprises for a few reasons. For one, it’s more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than its toned-down Atomic Blonde-style trailer would suggest. For another, this role not only finds Lawrence at her most sexual and seductive but a) reminds viewers that she is more than just Katniss or Mystique, and b) following the unsettling romantic drama Passengers and vehemently divisive mother!, is further proof that she is not one to shy away from provocative and ambitious material. For yet another, it makes one wonder how female sexuality is portrayed in this genre. Most don’t have an issue with Bond bedding every woman in sight, yet a woman deploying her “feminine wiles” carries a negative connotation. Moreover, whether by intent or happenstance, the reading of Red Sparrow becomes even more layered in the light of the #metoo era. For this is a film about power, specifically how women are in debt to the men who have it, and how those men commoditise and exploit those women so that they are nothing more than body parts. Or, as Dominika herself puts it, “If you don’t matter to the men in power, then you don’t matter.”

    Indeed, much of the film devotes itself to how men break down Dominika and her efforts to maintain and reclaim herself. There’s her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, slick and sinister), a member of the state security service. He promises to take care of her and her mother if she seduces information out of a Russian politician. It’s not exactly a choice, but she goes along with it, only to end up being raped and a witness to the politician’s murder. As Russian intelligence isn’t exactly keen on witnesses surviving, she once again finds herself backed in a corner: train to become a sparrow or die. The training program, run by the always welcome Charlotte Rampling (who could have easily played Lawrence’s role in her heyday), immediately strips Dominika of her name and instructs her and the other sparrows, both male and female, in the ways of sexual and psychological manipulation. Every person is a puzzle of need, Rampling’s Matron notes, and it is up to the sparrows to make themselves the missing piece and use everything they have within their disposal to extract the information they are tasked in uncovering.

    For Dominika, her mission after training is to cosy up to an American CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in order to find out the identity of his mole, who is someone high up in Russian intelligence. One of the more pleasant developments – possibly the only pleasant development amidst the parade of perversity and brutality – is the way it sidesteps the old chestnut of two spies falling for one another. Dominika and Nate do share an attraction, but he’s on to her and she knows he’s on to her and so they lay most of their cards on the table. The film may present Nash as someone who may have enough genuine feelings for Dominika to protect and even help her out of her situation, but it also wisely shows him as a lesser of two evils for Dominika. Nate has his own agenda – perhaps it’s a more appealing one for Dominika since she stands to gain more out of it, but it nonetheless forces her into another choice she has to deal with, one that places her in even more danger.

    Red Sparrow reunites Lawrence with Francis Lawrence (no relation), who directed her in all three Hunger Games films, and it’s clear that there’s an enormous amount of trust between the two. Lawrence pushes herself here as much as she did in mother! – there’s something almost shocking in the ease with which she embodies the different personalities Dominika puts on: the unsettling combination of shame and pride when she confronts her would-be rapist in the Sparrow program, the nonchalant dominance with which she conducts the transaction with Mary-Louise Parker’s turncoat politician, the resigned acceptance that washes over her face when she discovers someone she cares about at the hands of an operative with a prowess for torture, the desperate vulnerability with which she pleads to Vanya, “Didn’t I do well, uncle?”

    Red Sparrow is by no means a perfect film, nor is it even at times a very good one. Those expecting more Bond and Bourne-type action will be disappointed. Those settling in for a sugarcoated spy thriller will be stunned at the film’s unrelenting savagery and frequent luridness. Yet there is something cumulative in its potency and, by its end, one feels breathless, wrung out, and reeling from its startlingly bleak and barbarous hold.

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  • GRADE: C-


    IN BRIEF: Except for a strong performance by Jennifer Lawrence, this is one of the worst spy films ever.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Did any of you moviegoers out there happen to see last year’s espionage thriller, Atomic Blonde? It told the story of a seductive female spy using her martial skills and sexuality as a lethal weapon to combat enemy agents. At least, that film was high energy and stylishly filmed. Red Sparrow follows that same not-so-secret formula, with more talk violence, and sex to tell its predictable story. Perhaps a better alias might have been Code Name: Anemic Blonde, as this film version may follow the same course of events, but it’s a real yawn-fest. You know, the standard double crosses and fight sequences are intact and expected in this genre.

    The story goes something like this: Dominika Egorova, a premier ballerina for the Kirov Ballet, is unexpectedly forced to change jobs in order to support her ailing mother. (Are there any other types in Russia?) Dom is blackmailed to become a master spy by her evil Uncle Vanya (no relation to Chekov, although it could have used his creative talents). So it’s off to Sparrow School or “whore school” for some in-depth training . Our little minx is taught how to be a successful spy in seven easy lessons that include sexual humiliation, rape, and violent charades. The film meanders and takes its time indoctrinating our heroine with the art of the spy prior to her mission as she is trained to use her body a tad more than her mind. After graduating the top in her class (or bottom, she’s not fussy, the state owns her body now), Dom is send by the KGB to go on a mission to seduce a CIA agent and assess some sort of file…who knows, who cares. There are so many double crosses, amid violent scenes of gore and torture, that the film loses any shred of credibility.

    Red Sparrow does boast a fine performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She uses her Natasha Fatale accent quite well and makes a convincing anti-hero, even if the Tonya Harding bangs are a bit much. Too bad the actress is written as a mere sexual toy by Justin Haythe who is more interested in creating clever ways to depict gratuitous nudity (mostly Ms. Lawrence and some refreshing male frontal shots) and shocking violence in its frequent torture scenes to tell its tale.

    Oh, the mission…something about finding a mole. The plot grew very confusing and more convoluted as the film progressed. All the sinister talk and pointless exposition was tedious and under developed. By the midpoint of the movie, in my mind, this spy’s license to kill was revoked and reissued as a license to bore.

    The sluggish script introduces some sketchy stock characters, then they disappear, only to return later for no apparent reason. Their motives made no sense and their allegiances shifted throughout the movie as par for the course in these espionage thrillers. The jerky story structure goes global from one scenic European city to the next with occasional stops in Russia, but everything seemed off kilter as did some anachronistic props that had this reviewer questioning the time period of the story at one point (floppy discs?)

    Francis Lawrence (no relation to Ms. Lawrence, although it could have used her creative talents) does a sub-par job at directing, building no suspense at all. To keep the moviegoing audience awake, he throws in location sights to add authenticity while objectifying Ms. Lawrence in every conceivable nude scene in the most voyeuristic way. He also prolongs the torture sequences with a graphic glee. It is a exploitive cinematic step backwards.

    Except for Ms. Lawrence, the acting was disappointing, especially coming from a talented cast that included: Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Claran Hinds, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodge, and Jeremy Irons. Matthias Schoenaerts is the villainous uncle and he overplays the part. No animals may have been killed in the making of this movie, but the Russian accents were certainly mangled. Except for Ms. Lawrence’s consistent diction, nothing else was remotely believable.

    Joel Edgerton is Dominika’s love interest, Nate Nash, a perfect name for a comic book superhero, but merely unintentionally comic as played by this usually reliable actor. The chemistry between Ms. Lawrence and a miscast charmless Mr. Eggerton is non-existent.

    Red Sparrow is for the birds.

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  • Good Lord! How much sex and violence is acceptable for a UK-15 film?

    Rating: 6/10.

    “Red Sparrow”, the latest film from “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence, has Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”, “mother!”) as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina, who after a horrific accident (cringe) is forced to serve the State in order to keep her mother (Joely Richardson, “101 Dalmations”) in their Bolshoi-funded apartment and with the necessary medical treatment. She is sent to a spy “whore school”, ruled over by “matron” (Charlotte Rampling), to learn how to use sexual and psychological means to ‘get in the pants’ (and therefore the minds) of foreign targets.

    And she turns out to be very good and – without nepotism of course, given that her creepy uncle Egorov ( Matthias Schoenaerts, “Far From The Madding Crowd”) is high up in the special services – she is sent on a mission to Budapest to try to uncover a high profile mole, who’s CIA handler is Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, “The Great Gatsby”, “Black Mass”). Supervising Egorov’s operation are his two line managers General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds, “Harry Potter”). Sucked into a web of intrigue, Dominika needs to use all her skills and charms to complete her mission… which equates to keeping herself and her mother alive.

    This is an extremely uneven film. In places it is quite brilliant, particularly the twist in the ending which leaves you thinking (like “Life”) that the film is actually better than it was. In fact – subject to a couple of severe reservations discussed below – the script by Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”) and based on a book by Jason Matthews, is quite sharp. But – man – in its direction the film seriously takes its time. In my book, a film needs to have a pretty good reason to extend its stay past 2 hours, and this outstays its welcome by an extra 20 minutes. Many of the scenes are protracted – leisurely walks across streets etc. – for no particularly good reason.

    And so to those major reservations: the sex and the violence.

    I’m no prude when it comes to sex, but some of the scenes in the ‘whore school’ left me feeling like this was less about a “Times Up” initiative of empowering women and more about providing an array of sordid titillation on the screen that just help entrench mysoginistic views about women. (Did anyone else hear Kenneth Williams saying “Oooooh, matron” to Charlotte Rampling’s character?) There were men and women attending this training camp, but did we see – later in the film – any of the men subjecting themselves to sexual humiliation or subjugation in the field: no, we did not. I love a really good erotic film… but this just left me feeling dirty and used.

    And then there’s the violence. I’m definitely not a fan of the sort of violent-porn of the “Saw” type of films, but heavens – if there was a reason to make this an 18 certificate it was the violence involved. Violent rape, a vicious revenge attack, extreme torture, skinning alive: was there nothing in here that the censors thought, “hang on a minute, perhaps I don’t want a 15 year old seeing this”. I have seldom seen and heard more flinching and whimpering from women in a cinema audience than during this film. If you are adversely affected by screen violence, this is really one best to avoid.

    “The Cold War hasn’t ended – it has splintered into thousands of dangerous pieces” intones the matron. Similarly, this film has potential but splinters into many pieces, some good but far more sharp and dangerous. With similarities in tone and content to “Atomic Blonde”, there’s a good ‘post cold war’ spy film in here trying to get out. Unfortunately, it never quite gets both legs over the wall.

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