Films are products of the times in which they were created. Regardless of how universal their themes or stories are, great films bear the marks of their creators and the world in which they were created. That’s not the same thing as being “dated,” which occurs when a film not only displays its origins, but is trapped and diminished by them. Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Jennifer Lawrence, has the unfortunate honor of being a film out of time — it’s neither dated nor a recognizable product of 2018. The movie would play just as well in 1998 (or 1988) — and would still be completely inert.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a rising ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet. She shows off her talent through some CGI dancing (much more convincing than the fake skating in I, Tonya), but afterward she returns to her apartment to nurse her mother (Joely Richardson), who is stricken with a degenerative muscular disease. When a clumsy male dancer leaves her with a career-ending broken leg during a performance, Dominika is in jeopardy of losing her apartment and her mother’s doctors (apparently the most prestigious ballet in the world is pretty stingy).
In swoops Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s Uncle Vanya (yes, really), who works for Russian intelligence. He has a louche aroma about him, as if he’s constantly debating whether to seduce or destroy the people around him. Vanya’s solution to Dominika’s financial and familial worries is to send her off to a school for “sparrows” — men and women trained in the art of intelligence gathering and kompromat. At least that’s what they’re supposed to be trained in, yet the film mostly focuses on the ways these young people are degraded and taught to be walking sex toys for powerful people. One by one, they’re brought to the front of the classroom by the matron (Charlotte Rampling, barely even trying to affect a Russian accent) and instructed to remove their clothing or sexually satisfy a person for all to watch.
It’s in these scenes that Red Sparrow reveals its cynical ploy to claim the mantle of empowerment. The film has allowed the audience to ogle at Lawrence’s body previously, both while dancing and as a scantily clad escort of sorts, but now she’s forced to strip down completely to appease a former student who had previously tried to rape her. The man is humiliated when he can’t get it up in the face of Lawrence’s unimpressed glare, but even as she is triumphant, the camera is carefully positioned so that one of her breasts is visible the entire time, thus allowing her to triumph over an adversary, yet simultaneously presenting her body to the audience for the sake of titillation.
Although he’s introduced early in the film, Joel Edgerton’s scenes as C.I.A. agent Nate Nash don’t really pick up until halfway through the film. He goes back to the US in disgrace after being compromised during a failed information pickup with a Russian contact, yet he’s somehow allowed back into the field within a few months. While laying low in Vienna he meets Dominika, who has been sent to compromise him, but their shared attraction and her desire to escape from sexual slavery puts them on similar ground.
The film that Francis Lawrence has crafted from this convoluted story is elegantly — but coldly — photographed. Rather than using the standard desaturated look in vogue among political thrillers, he instead opts for a cold winter light (a small but meaningful difference). It allows us to appreciate the color of Jennifer Lawrence’s sultry crimson dress, or be shocked by a bathtub full of similarly colored blood.
Yet as nice as Red Sparrow looks, it never achieves a sense of place. The film’s cold war revival mindset bleeds over into the Russian scenes, and it’s hard to know in isolation whether they take place in the 21st century or in the mid-1980s. The version of Russia shown in the film is one in which the Soviet Union never ceased to exist, where its bureaucracy and corruption are still omnipresent. On one hand, that’s sort of true, but Lawrence is also wed to the imagery of James Bond and Tom Clancy films. A general played by Jeremy Irons wouldn’t look at all out of place in The Hunt for Red October. Underscoring most of these scenes is James Newton Howard’s overbearing and morose score, a poor imitation of Russian classical music.
None of this atmosphere suits Lawrence’s performance, probably her most reserved and impassive work. Roles defined by spontaneity and wild abandon have helped make her famous (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), so much so that it’s easy to overlook the quiet fury that first got her noticed (Winter’s Bone). She looks bored through most of it, whether she’s trying to seduce Edgerton or is bashing someone’s head in with a shower knob.
Beyond the aforementioned nude scene, Red Sparrow affords the audience multiple opportunities to either gawk at Lawrence’s body or revel in her pain. There are multiple swimming pool scenes, none of which serve any narrative purpose, though they do show off Lawrence in a chic bathing suit. At other times she’s being brutally beaten by Russian assassins and interrogators, which the director shows with stomach-churning realism. The other women don’t fare much better, as female sparrows either meet brutal ends or are quickly forgotten, and Mary-Louise Parker has a thankless role as a compromised American.
In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Lawrence revealed that she had tried to watch a screener of Oscar contender Phantom Thread, only to turn it off after three minutes. Her reason for not continuing? She didn’t want to watch a film about a sociopath treating women poorly. Her interpretation of that film aside, what’s stunning is how unaware she is that her own film is exactly the kind of movie she despises. Sometimes it’s hard to see what is right in front of your nose.