RED SPARROW

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Francis Lawrence

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Shoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Mary-Louise Parker, Douglas Hodge, Sergei Polunin, Thekla Reuten.

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A violent and brutal spy thriller, Red Sparrow follows quickly on the heels of last year’s tough Atomic Blonde, and serves up another strong female centric spy story. But there’s also a touch of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita to Red Sparrow. The violence here is brutal almost sadistic, and some scenes are certainly not for the squeamish. Red Sparrow is a cross between a spy procedural and a kick-arse action thriller, but it is a film that grabs the audience from the outset.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina whose career is cut short (deliberately?) by an accident on stage. She spends much of her time caring for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). At the urging of her powerful uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, from A Bigger Splash, etc), a deputy of Russia’s external intelligence service, Dominika joins Russian Intelligence as an assassin. But after her first mission goes wrong, she joins “sparrow school”, a top-secret facility where agents are trained to use their bodies as weapons and are steeped in the art of seduction and betrayal and taught to become “honey pot agents” adept in the art of ensnaring, manipulating and compromising enemy agents. Classes include watching some hard-core S&M pornography.

After graduating from the gruelling training program, Dominika is sent to Budapest and put on the trail of CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, from Loving, etc), who is the controller of a mole deep within the Kremlin. Dominika is charged with seducing Nash in order to learn the identity of the high ranked mole known only as “Marble”. Nate manages to convince Dominika to work with the CIA as a double agent.

Red Sparrow is based on the 2013 thriller written by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent himself who had 33 years’ experience as a spy. Like John Le Carre before him he draws upon his experiences to shape his psychological thriller, and it is steeped in an authentic understanding of spy craft, the intricacies of the spy game, the machinations and casual betrayals. But whereas Le Carre was more intellectual in his writing, Matthews’ writing is more like a blunt force. The novel has been adapted to the screen by Justin Haythe (A Cure For Wellness, Revolutionary Road, etc), and he unpacks the complex and convoluted plot with some clarity. Haythe’s script remains reasonably faithful to the source material.

Dominika is a strong female character reminiscent of Charlize Theron in both Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road, but there is also a hint of cynical exploitation to the role as there are plenty of shots of Lawrence naked. And she is subjected to plenty of physical degradation with state-sanctioned beatings and rapes.

The director is Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star), best known for helming the last couple of instalments in the successful The Hunger Games franchise. He maintains a fast past throughout the film’s 139-minute running time. Lawrence put Jennifer Lawrence through her paces in the Hunger Games films, and he knows how to get the best out of his star. There is a sense of trust between the actor and the director that was necessary given the material here.

This is a physically and emotionally demanding role as Lawrence’s character is put through a wringer, sexually humiliated and beaten regularly. Lawrence manages to hint at the traumatic past of her character, but there is a remoteness to Dominika that makes it hard to empathise with her morally conflicted character. Red Sparrow also follows a couple of disappointing outings from the Oscar winning actress, particularly after the maligned Mother! and the sci-fi drama Passengers.

Edgerton is also good in an underwritten role as the cliched American agent caught up in a duplicitous plot where nothing is as straight forward as it seems. Sadly, though there is not much chemistry between the two stars. Charlotte Rampling has a severe, cold and chilling presence as the ice cold and somewhat unnerving and emotionless matron of the training school. The supporting cast also includes British actors playing Russian villains but speaking with atrocious accents. Ciaran Hinds plays the manipulative Colonel Zakharov while Jeremy Irons is slimy as Vladimir Korchnoi, both powerful leaders within the Kremlin keen to uncover the identity of the mole.

There is a coldness to the film’s settings which gives it a strong sense of atmosphere and menace, and it taps into the simmering tensions between Russia and America. The tone is quite bleak with some graphic violence and nasty torture sequences.

The film has a glossy surface though. Red Sparrow has been nicely shot by Jo Willems, who collaborated with director Lawrence on the last couple of films in The Hunger Games franchise, and who gives us some great visuals and captures the exotic locations. There is also some great production design from Maria Djurkovic (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, etc).

While a brutal and for the most part engaging spy thriller, it’s almost impossible to watch Red Sparrow without comparing it to superior thrillers like La Femme Nikita or Atomic Blonde.

★★★

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