Director: Francis Lawrence
If you are one of the highest paid performers in Hollywood, do you stick or twist? Stick and you alternate Oscar-fodder with franchise movies. Twist and you help to bring chancy material to the screen. Jennifer Lawrence, who has forged a career with only one rom-com to her name – if you can classify Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy – has twisted with three non-franchise flicks in a row. In Passengers, she played a crew member awakened from cryogenic sleep by a flustered Chris Pratt. Mother! saw her cast in a psychological horror film that divided audience between WTF and why the fuss? Now in Red Sparrow, she is glummer than Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly, as a Russian ballerina recruited by sinister Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts at his most Vladmir Putin) to become a spy. On paper, this adaptation of Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel had the potential for a franchise. However, someone forgot both the story and a reason for us to care.
The opening is fairly terrific, intercutting CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) having his rendezvous with his source interrupted by Moscow police with young Bolshoi ballet star Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) preparing to go on stage. The climax of the montage is a shocking bone-crunching injury to Dominika by her dance partner, ending a promising career and threatening to cast her sick mother (Joely Richardson) onto the street; in the world of this movie, there are no kindly relatives or state support. Uncle Vanya offers her a chance to continue her service to the Mother Russia by becoming an accomplished seductress, which involves gaining trust and literally putting her body on the line. The mistress of the school (Charlotte Rampling) orders her to undress in front of the class, offering education by humiliation.
Like many highly paid actresses, Lawrence doesn’t have to do nude scenes. Here, she exposes herself, albeit partly shielded from our view by another actor, to show the solemnity with which she has embraced the role. However, her seriousness does not translate to the movie as a whole, which loses itself in the plot. Dominika is engaged to make contact with Nate in Budapest, when he is put back in the field, but then gets caught up in a parallel plot involving Stephanie Boucher (Mary-Louise Parker), the Chief of Staff to a US Senator with secrets to spill.
Parker, who has returned to “red” territory for the first time since 2013’s RED 2, is the only performer who appears to be having fun, as she drunkenly turns over a bunch of floppy discs to the Russians in a London hotel. Although the drama is set at least ten years ago, the filmmakers, director Francis Lawrence (no relation) and writer Justin Haythe hint at the kind of betrayal that is said to have taken place in the lead up to the 2016 US election, albeit without any kind of follow through.
There is no shortage of sexual violence in the film, with Dominika fighting off another student, then being forced to give him what he wants. The film doesn’t solve the problem of how to stage such scenes without seeming exploitative. The director’s answer is to have the sexual attacks be interrupted or else have Dominika come out on top. Nevertheless, we question whether this should be entertainment. Violence against women, sometimes graphic, another time almost comic becomes the real subject of the film, far more than the struggle between the individual and the state, as plotted through Dominika’s “struggle”.
Two-thirds of the way through, during a torture scene, I genuinely didn’t know whether Dominika was telling the truth or lying since her interrogator was referring to a character whose name I hadn’t registered. Another scene involving a skin grafter prompted an audience member at the screening I attended to collapse. The film continued whilst the individual was escorted from the screen to be given medical care. By Hollywood standards, the film is more bloody than graphic, but it is clear that audience members more used to comic book violence will find some scenes difficult to watch.
The ending has a certain surprise value as Dominika’s real mission becomes apparent. However, it puts plot ahead of a coherent portrayal of a character. Some gripping set pieces aside, Red Sparrow is more confusing than involving. By the end, I couldn’t give a tweet. Patrick Mulcahy