Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts
“The Cold War hasn’t ended, it shattered into a thousand pieces.”
After her promising ballet career is cut short due to injury, Dominika Egorva (Jennifer Lawrence), is recruited into a unique wing of the Russian intelligence service. Called “sparrows” the agents are trained in seduction, deception and manipulation. All skills she must employ in her first mission, as she’s plunged into a web of intrigue to attempt to find an American mole at the center of the Russian government.
Based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews (himself a former CIA operative) this is an intense spy thriller more in the vein of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than a Bond or a Bourne. Red Sparrow delves head first into a world of realistic espionage and shifting loyalties. Less concerned with the action genre that many spy films fall into, this is a world of move and counter move, playing out like a tense game of chess. Except in chess, your pieces don’t suddenly betray you, you are unlikely to end up in an interrogation cell, and there is little chance that you will suddenly acquire a bullet in the back of the head (at least in my limited experience).
Hence Red Sparrow is a film concerned with manipulation and control. It depicts a murky landscape of extreme sex and violence, but it really all comes down to one central tenet – power. The sparrows are taught to become the missing piece in their target’s desire so as to entrap and manipulate them, but as Dominika explains in one crucial training sequence, it is not about sex, it’s about power. As such the sexual politics are murky at best, as it is dealing with the concept of sex as a weapon, and often times violence can also come out of that and the world of espionage. Red Sparrow borders on exploitative (oft times the male gaze lingering on Lawrence is certainly uncomfortable), but it admits that the world is still not a place of equality. The powerful are predominantly men, and power can still breed contempt, especially when it comes to asserting dominance. It’s against this background that Dominika must use every means at her disposal for both survival, and the mission.
Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Mother!) is brilliant as Dominika, anchoring the film. Her performance and mood shifts as the scene demands, never leaving you entirely sure of the character’s actual loyalties and motivation until the ending, but never doubting her intelligence and strength of purpose. Joel Edgerton (The Gift) is solid in a supporting role as a C.I.A operative (and Dominika’s target), but never really brings a sense of life to the character, beyond an underlying immense sorry caused by the rigors of his work. Then there is Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) as the Matron of the spy training facility. A cold calculating ideologue, her harsh tutelage forms much of the tension of the initial half. Add Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), and Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) as the various Russian military, intelligence and political officers embroiled in this complicated game of cat and mouse, and you have an exceptional cast to sink its teeth into the complex plot.
Red Sparrow is certainly no Atomic Blonde clone, or a Marvel’s Black Widow origin story with the serial numbers filed off. Instead it’s a complicated piece that will divide critics and audiences, creating a slow burn spy thriller that’s hard to ignore.