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‘Red Sparrow’ Further Solidifies Jennifer Lawrence’s Star Power

When we think of spy movies, two contrasting types immediately come to mind. The first is the action-packed extravaganza, featuring a hero smashing his way through various stunning locales. The second is a far more sombre affair, full of double-crosses and lies, twists and turns, all shot in perpetually fog-filled cities. Red Sparrow is definitely of the latter variety, a semi-mature take on the John Le Carré novel that further solidifies Jennifer Lawrence as one of the most exciting women in Hollywood. Its hard to think of any other star who could get a film like this (with a $69 million budget) made.

She plays Dominika Egorova, a woman who has grown up in a world simply soaked in misogyny, a bleak setting that informs the film’s entire worldview. Having achieved peak physical perfection as a ballerina at the Bolshoi, her life is suddenly turned upside-down due to an injury on stage. She cares deeply for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), both of them living in a flat subsidised by the ballet company. With her career truly over, she will do anything to prevent her mother from dying in a state hospice, and so reluctantly takes part in one of her Uncle Vanya’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) schemes. He’s a major player at a major spy agency, and he eventually recruits her to become one of the Sparrows — high-level operatives that utilise their sexual wiles in order to extract information from sources.

We are told by Egorova’s matron at the state school (expertly played by Charlotte Rampling) that the Cold War never ended, but the Americans got lazy due to their complacency and apparent social media use. Thus, the Sparrows are needed to strike at their weak spots. It would be unwise to read too much into the absurdities of the geopolitical angle; the signifiers of Russia are used more to create atmosphere than to actually comment on anything meaningful regarding how the country works, or its relationship to the West. Thankfully, this othering of Russia doesn’t become too toxic; when we come into contact with the Americans, they aren’t presented as beacons of moral rigour, but equally world-weary and morally compromised. The power relationships inherent in serving one’s country are used instead to give broader context to the movie’s themes of sexual violence. By the end, it becomes obvious that this stereotypical Russian angle has been used as a smokescreen to sneak in what appears to be a feminist message (although, no doubt, this stance will be deeply contested).

Red Sparrow is remarkably bleak and sexually frank for a Hollywood movie, feeling like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold directed by Paul Verhoeven. The first half sees Egorova constantly propositioned and uncomfortably sexually assaulted by many different men, a dynamic she switches on its head by trying to invert that same power relationship. Reminiscent of Elle — of all movies — the film features a female star who had been violated when her own naked pictures were illegally disseminated on the web, and now is depicted fighting back against this unfair dynamic on her own terms. Yet Sparrow is hardly as rigorous, putting these themes on the back burner during the second half of the movie, which devolves into standard (but still highly enjoyable) spy thriller fare. The two sides feel unconnected, and even if director Francis Lawrence nails the landing, it doesn’t quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.

Visually, Red Sparrow luxuriates in the gloomy aesthetic of former Soviet Eastern Europe architecture to evoke the smoke-and-mirrors vibe of the cold war. The area surrounding the Bolshoi, which in reality contains a large fountain and multiple bustling shops, is emptied out completely — making Moscow look spare and foreboding. This is a film full of chainsmokers and long jackets, sleazy men and desperate women, a grim world where any true human connection has to be held on to for dear life.

Egorova’s contact to a new, more hopeful world is found in Budapest, where she meets American spy Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), a vital source that can be exploited to find the mole within the Russian spy service. This plot, although starting off from a place of generic titillation, eventually zigs when it should zag, keeping the viewer guessing until the final scene. At 140 minutes long, Red Sparrow revels in setting up its very long con, providing immense pay-off for fans of the spy genre in the process. It may not be perfect, but these are the kind of risky movies that Hollywood needs to fund more of in the future.

Comparisons will be made to Atomic Blonde, but the only real similarity is that both films are about female spies. Where Atomic Blonde went for nostalgic action thrills, Red Sparrow is aiming (and perhaps failing to reach) something far deeper, as exemplified by its moody classical score. Here’s hoping that original female-led, medium-to-big-budget genre films which play for adults are not merely a passing fad, but can provide some enjoyable relief in a blockbuster season overpopulated by superhero movies, tiresome reboots, and talking cartoon animals.

Written By

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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