Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Justin Haythe
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
Runtime: 140 Minutes
Every now and then through the grinding gears of studio regime, something slips through the cracks that doesn’t feel like it belongs when associated with major Hollywood studio systems like 20th Century Fox. Not because of an authorial vision, precisely, but because the product itself harbours darker elements or a more uncomfortable undercurrent that one wouldn’t imagine being released into multiplexes with such pomp and circumstance as Red Sparrow, which has been sold to audiences as an action thriller highlighting its star Jennifer Lawrence as the sexy revealing Russian lead, but is instead a very specific kind of genre deconstruction that is far more disturbing and excessive than anyone might expect.
Based on Jason Matthews 2013 novel of the same name, the story concerns a former famed ballet dancer, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who is through circumstance forced by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) to join the ranks of the seduce-and-destroy operatives known as “Sparrows”. Where she is trained to endure physical and mental for the sake of training men and women to seduce targets, not through emotional engagement but by feigning attraction and learning to endure sexual assault from vile individuals without vomiting or blowing their cover.
It’s a nasty and incredibly tough to swallow scenario, but much of its function is to subvert the image that most people might view of the kind of female seductresses in spy movies. These are trained individuals with emotions, backstories and lives on the line who are trotted out for eye-candy when in fact their body is being weaponised as a means of disarming the opponent, and the way the film threads this needle of sick fascination is by making the audience question themselves for fawning over its lead character.
Jennifer Lawrence is asked a lot here, from being stripped naked and sexually humiliated to being beaten and tortured to monstrous extremes, the audience is put through the wringer with her. Lawrence never misses a beat, even through the thickly animated Russian accents she emotes and responds more in any given situation than many of her stature might allow of themselves.
It’s a tricky and insidious business that taps into a lurid sensibility with the male gaze as it lingers over the beaten and bleeding bodies of women alive and dead, and many will take against it on those grounds alone almost immediately. Its depiction of Russia as a ghostly, almost anachronistically old world resembling the Cold War feels slightly at odds with its setting, and nails how the idea of one’s body belonging to the state means that they must offer it back in return. Cast as the shadowy antagonists, it feels surprisingly prescient given the place of the world at this time.
It’s a question of not only how much one is willing to stomach to go along with its story, but how much it justifies its intentions to pull apart the conceptions of the audience without them realising it.
Thankfully, the narrative we have been dealt is an intelligently woven, if complicated, espionage thriller the kind where surveillance and counter-surveillance are handled from the sides of the Russians and the Americans in two entwined stories. Both of which are brought together well in the film’s opening sequence. The turns that it takes are genuinely compelling in execution even if some of them can be seen coming, sold by an incredibly game cast of familiar faces.
Joel Edgerton makes more of his CIA operative Nate Nash than makes sense on paper, as does Matthias Schoenaerts in an insidiously particular look. Legends like Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds tear up the scenery while Charlotte Rampling lives up to her staple as a stern patriarch training the “Sparrows” to fulfil the kind of roles she played in her younger years.
Red Sparrow is problematic in conception and execution with divisive goals, but it mostly works as a different breed of compelling thriller with a ferocious bite to it where it counts. Even if it could have ended in a dozen different ways the finale it settles on works, while on a technical level Francis Lawrence’s direction is very strong, and Jennifer Lawrence holds the whole thing together with magnetic poise and power.