Red Sparrow, a rather inventive thriller about international espionage between Russia and America, inserts itself into the vein of Cold War-esque films of the past, despite being set in 2018. Its plot explores the jarring perils of nationalism and the personal journey of Russian dancer Dominika Egorova, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence. When she suffers the loss of her dancing career, Dominika is recruited to become a Sparrow: an elite, manipulative operative of the Russian government. If she does this, her government promises to take care of her ailing mother’s medical bills. Dominika is ultimately forced to choose between her livelihood and the corrupt actions of her country.
To support a gripping film like Red Sparrow effectively, a musical score must have elements of tension, but also beauty and passion. Therefore, boy, are we lucky to have expert composers like James Newton Howard writing music for films today. With his score for Red Sparrow, Howard mingles nationalistic Russian harmonies with both traditional and modern instrumentations. This is used to enhance and enrich the definite rushes and assuages in the film to tug on viewers’ senses.
The first cue of the score arises as the film begins. The cue, titled ‘Overture’, accompanies what is truly the overture (introduction or introductory segment) of the film. Hushed strings enter and state an ominous motif, establishing an air of mystery. They are joined on the latter end of this theme by lower strings and woodwinds. This section of the cue is both underscore for the film and diegetic music (music represented as coming from inside the film) as Dominika joins multiple other dancers as the lead of a Russian ballet performance. The noble and nationalistic waltz employs the full forces of the orchestra, and contains the first statement of Dominika’s musical theme by the woodwinds.
This nearly twelve minute cue transitions into multiple sections including everything from a grand Russian waltz to percussive, tense music to accompany covert activity. As the film moves between Dominika’s waltz and the spy activity of Joel Edgerton’s CIA Agent character Nathaniel Nash, the strings become percussive, angular, and rhythmic, and swelling brass joins in as pressure builds. A good deal of the thematic material and cues for the entire film are pulled from this single masterful cue.
Later cues such as ‘The Steam Room’, ‘One Night is All I Ask’, ‘Take Off Your Dress’, ‘Searching Marta’s Room’, ‘Switching Disks’, and ‘Searcing Nate’s Apartment’ apply minimalist techniques to evoke tension, often swelling into strained brass or strings as the scenes they accompany reach violent or stirring crescendos. These cues are all rather short, and are meant to specifically partner with the scenes in their titles.
Cues such as ‘Blonde Suits You’, ‘Can I Trust You’, ‘So What Next?’, and ‘Didn’t I Do Well’ are orchestrated more thickly, at times resembling music of the late Romantic or Neo-Classical periods, specifically the works Sergei Rachmaninov. These cues are associated with moments that are deeply thoughtful or transitional in the film.
James Newton Howard is one among only a few working composers who could’ve written such a fitting score for Red Sparrow. He does an exemplary job of implementing the elements essential to an international spy film, specifically one involving Russia. Red Sparrow’s themes of nationalism, patriotism, heroism, and virtue might not have been as digestible or effectual without the nationalistic and reflective aesthetic created by Howard.