We’ve been led to believe that the Cold War has been over for nearly two decades, but according to one character in Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, it’s merely ‘shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces’. Instead of the homogenous, monolithic spectre of mutually assured destruction that kept East and West in an uneasy truce for forty years (and afforded Hollywood thousands of lazy Soviet bogeymen), the safety net has gone and all bets are off in a mash of petty internecine rivalries, blatant corruption and a virulent strand of gangster capitalism. Despite this premise Red Sparrow is a curious throwback to the pre-glasnost standoff. It’s part James Bond, part John Le Carré and all ridiculous. It is however, saved from being a routine thriller by its more problematic elements.
After a leg break during a performance ends her dancing career, ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited by her Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking officer in Russian Intelligence, into seducing a high-profile target. She agrees on the condition that the treatment of her infirm mother (Joely Richardson) continues. When the job goes spectacularly awry and she finds herself witness to a murder, she’s left with no choice but to train as a ‘sparrow’, young spies instructed in locating and exploiting the weaknesses of their targets. She’s instructed to gain the trust of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative removed from Moscow after blowing his cover to protect an asset, code-named Marble, working in deep cover within Russia.
Jennifer Lawrence brings the same stoic blankness to the film that she resorted to in the later films of The Hunger Games saga, in which she was also directed by Francis Lawrence. Despite the occasional wandering of the accent she’s surprisingly believable as a resourceful Russian agent. Dominika’s put through the wringer, enduring rape, attempted rape, knife attacks and various methods of torture; more extreme versions of the hardships she endured as Katniss Everdeen in fact.
As with other alumni of massively successful YA franchises like Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, Lawrence’s keenness to branch out into more challenging, esoteric roles (mother! being a case in point) sees her pushing the boundaries to see which of her young devotees will follow. Although playing a spy, her role as Dominika has little in common with the likes of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde or Angelina Jolie in Salt. Instead it’s more comparable to Scarlett Johansson’s role in Under the Skin, as a young woman learning to use her body as a weapon in an alien environment to which she must quickly attune. There are nods to ideas of female empowerment, but there’s a resignation that there’s a long way to go before a woman can call her body her own.
This is best demonstrated in the scenes of her induction into the murky world of espionage. The school for sparrows would be flat-out laughable if it wasn’t for the sexualised brutality of the ‘teaching’ methods, designed to strip away all traces of humanity while maximising the sparrows’ aptitude for seduction and manipulation. With rows of vacant-faced youths in shapeless boiler suits trained using sinister methods, these scenes sit uncomfortably in some weird Venn diagram linking the hilarious Cold War Russophobia of Drago’s training in Rocky IV, the ludicrous camp of Prisoner Cell Block H, and the politicised sadism of Pasolini’s Salo. Add Charlotte Rampling channelling Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb as the ‘Matron’ (yes, really), and the tonal balance plummets into some cinematic equivalent of free form jazz.
Rampling isn’t the only respected thespian straining at the leash to be let loose at that delicious scenery. Jeremy Irons (not recently known for underplaying a role) also relishes the portentous dialogue as creepy Russian general, Ciaran Hinds does what he can being authoritative behind a desk, Mary-Jane Parker is a drunken US Chief of Staff in a bizarre subplot involving floppy disks (another anachronistic touch), and the prolific Bill Camp yells his way through the film as one of Nash’s superiors. Each wisely embraces the madness.
While the twists and counter-twists go all the way through clever plotting into muddled daftness, there is something that remains compelling about Red Sparrow. Behind the gloss of a generic Hollywood thriller lies something closer to the exploitation genre, and it is this grubby aesthetic that keeps the film interesting despite the repetitive storytelling and the unnecessary run time. The violence is frequent and vicious, right from the opening crunch of poor Dominika’s leg, and her subsequent revenge. The theme of Red Sparrow is the body; the extent to which women have autonomy over their own, how it can become an asset of the state as a spy or a soldier, the limits of pain it can endure, how easily it can be broken apart, and how it can be used as a weapon. There is torture by freezing water, beating and skinning, and it can hold the interest just by seeing how far Lawrence and Lawrence are willing to go next. It is undeniably, impressively nasty. Considering it’s a film based on a novel by an ex-CIA operative, Red Sparrow never convinces as an authentic spy thriller like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s also perhaps too extreme for mainstream consumption, but for all its absurdity, it’s a red-blooded piece with an impressively committed turn from Jennifer Lawrence.