Red Sparrow Movie Review: A Slow-Burning, Psychologically Brutal Film About A Ballerina-Turned-Agent, Film Companion
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Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling

Trust American filmmakers to find a brand new roundabout way of hating on Russia. With Red Sparrow, they have graduated – from populating their own audacious action-hero franchises with token Russian baddies – to creating a frigid East European spy thriller peppered with American/English actors playing disillusioned Russian agents who would much rather side with the “humanity” of America. We see the other side of heroism now, with the CIA and Western spy agencies indirectly glorified by the magnification of their Russian counterparts’ inhumanity.

What Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence essentially means here is that even post-Cold-War Russia is so brutal, dictatorial and impersonal that they can’t even control the drones of their own villainy. Forget fighting suave double agents for world domination, they are unable to keep their own dungeons in order. Fair enough. At least we may get to (unofficially) understand the “foxiness” behind the notoriety of red-haired, real-life SVR agent, Anna Chapman.

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In context of the cinema it represents, Red Sparrow is unlike any spy thriller ever made. This can be good or bad, depending on how one looks at it. It’s the caged, grey winter to the perpetual Western-spy summer – bleak, difficult, depressing and without a hint of action and irreverence. As viewers, we are conditioned to expect a load of entertainment and physicality from this cheeky male-dominated genre. But the mechanics of Red Sparrow’s espionage is somewhat a product – an angry political and social reaction – of the depressingly combatant era it occupies. The physicality has less to do with daring leaps and imaginative set pieces, and more to do with a woman’s body and mind.

The film pulls no punches to show what it really thinks of Russia’s primitive and perversely misogynist training methods – by putting a famous American star’s face to the oppression. It tells the slow-burning, psychologically brutal story of a prima-ballerina-turned-agent named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). After suffering a career-ending ballet injury, Dominika becomes a classic victim-of-circumstances trope: she is forced into Sparrow School – where she is trained to use her body as a weapon (“You must learn to love on command,” purrs a curiously wasted Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress) – all so that the government pays for her mother’s medical bills. A hint of her “potential” is revealed early on, when she beats her rival dancer within inches of death after she discovers that her injury wasn’t an accident. Her disillusionment with her country’s system, too, presumably begins here.

The film pulls no punches to show what it really thinks of Russia’s primitive and perversely misogynist training methods – by putting a famous American star’s face to the oppression. It tells the slow-burning, psychologically brutal story of a prima-ballerina-turned-agent named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence).

The core of her tragedy lies in her change of profession. That she has no other choice as a beautiful, ambitious girl is, in itself, a commentary on the culture she represents. As a top-level ballerina, the art of her body regaled powerful men and their aesthetic; as a government-owned Sparrow, those very men only ever notice the commerce of that body. The core of her conflict unravels during her first mission in Budapest, where she must seduce an undercover CIA agent named Nate (Joel Edgerton) into divulging the identity of a long-time Russian mole. Not surprisingly, given that these are two spies who are trained to manipulate emotions, it’s the falling-in-love part that lacks a sense of consistency.

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I’m given to understand that the book this film is based on offers equal footing to the lives of Nate and Dominika. Given the times we live in, it’s no surprise that the director chose to focus on the girl’s perspective. Instead of going Salt and Atomic Blonde on us, he chooses to chart a mental and stylistic equivalent of Steven Soderbergh’s intensely physical 2011 actioner, Haywire, and Steven Spielberg’s 2015 historical drama, Bridge of Spies. Mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano pulled off some jaw-dropping stunts in Haywire, and Jennifer Lawrence manages to showcase the same one-woman-army endurance without having to break a bone. As a captured Russian spy in BoS, Mark Rylance demonstrated a quiet show of faith in the American way – a delicate balance of personality that Red Sparrow struggles to communicate, despite Lawrence’s incredible spirit.

Red Sparrow may suck the fun and games out of the sexy espionage thriller, but nobody complained when Batman Begins did the same to the superhero flick.

Much of Red Sparrow’s weaker links, I suspect, lie in its translation into a single-hero piece. The film relies on Dominika’s surprisingly frank equation with Nate – they lay their cards on the table early on, almost as if they were two spy veterans chuckling at the heightened seductress methods of Hollywood movies. They develop a strange connection – one that the film wants to attribute to chemistry and feelings, but one that comes across more as a bookish theme that isn’t fleshed out without his backstory. Other than him being shown as a man of routine (he swims a lot), there is not much else we learn about that explains his predisposition towards the girl. Nate is the man who is supposed to have given Dominika the courage to go against her own country; he even convinces his bosses to use her as a reverse CIA mole quite easily. Yet, at some point, it becomes awkwardly clear that Dominika’s hatred – and pretend patriotism (she is a performer after all) – for Russia is more than her supposed love for Nate. Perhaps a more versatile actor than Edgerton might have lent a stronger illusion to their mysterious relationship.

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Thankfully, Lawrence’s cocktail of lost-little-girl vulnerability and reluctant womanhood makes her journey more than a texturally elevated visual adventure. If we wonder why the romantic angle of her story feels incomplete, there are a few answers in one particular scene. Torn between opportunity and fear, Dominika, who is spending the night at Nate’s flat, walks to him half-naked in the middle of the night. “Can I trust you?” she asks, softly. When he assures her kindly – come to think of it, he would make a terrible James Bond or Ethan Hunt – Dominika quietly climbs on top of him. She then rides him for less than a minute, till she is satisfied. For the first time, she is doing this on her own terms, by choosing her own position of power. Which is why the sex here might look really unpleasant and cold – because Nate, even as he is inside her, seems to realize that this is actually her language of “rewarding” him. It is about as intimate as she can get. She is merely – as trained, but not well enough – using her body to thank him.

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There’s an aura of prolific overworked-ness about Lawrence that suits this atmospherically paced movie. Everything she acts in has always felt like a survival drama. Red Sparrow may suck the fun and games out of the sexy espionage thriller, but nobody complained when Batman Begins did the same to the superhero flick. Even after watching 140 minutes of a gloomy, campy European Katniss Everdeen find her real-world calling, it’s difficult not to want more. That this one seeks political humanism as much as mainstream feminism in its battered enchantress, though, is something I’m willing to embrace. So what if this genre doesn’t quite need a makeover yet? All it took back then was George Clooney in a nipple Batsuit.

Rating:   star

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