That the world of espionage is bursting with stranger than fiction stories should come as no surprise. A ring of Russian sleeper agents in the US arrested in one fell swoop, including the glamorous Anna Chapman. A British code breaker found dead, locked inside a holdall in his own bath. A former KGB spy dying slowly on the front pages of world newspapers after a radioactive cup of tea. As such, the plot of Red Sparrow is infinitely believable – a secret school where attractive young agents are taught to use their bodies to beguile, charm and spy for Mother Russia.
Based on the best selling novel by former CIA officer Jason Matthews, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a preeminent ballerina at the famous Bolshoi ballet who loses her position after a broken leg bumps her from the prima spot. An act of revenge leaves her exposed and in the debt of her Uncle Vanya (a nod to Chekov?) a high ranking officer in Russia’s foreign intelligence service. After witnessing a grisly murder she is given an ultimatum – death or enrolment in Sparrow School where she will be trained in seduction and employed against enemies in the West.
Red Sparrow sports a convoluted plot not a-typical of spy thrillers and whilst it keeps you guessing motives and loyalties right till the very end it also feels bloated at 2 hours and 20 minutes. On the Bond to John le Carre spy spectrum it definitely sits on the talkier end, preferring the slow burn of tense dialogue to exchanges of gunfire. This certainly adds a level of authenticity and there is a sense of the mundanity involved in being a clandestine agent. It’s not all martinis in casinos and wrecking sports cars, an idea reflected in the cinematography which apart from a few hotel scenes and expansive wides, paints a drab and chilly world of post-communism. The action that does exist is brutal and dark, especially the scenes of rape and torture which sail close to the wind and prove uncomfortable viewing.
Jennifer Lawrence succeeds at delivering a steely stoicism throughout and is compelling to watch. Joel Edgerton’s CIA officer does not leave much of an impression and the relationship between the two characters (which is the pivot of the plot) lacks depth, emotion and chemistry. Confiding state secrets then falling into bed making promises seemed flat and business like. But then again, perhaps these real life exchanges are? Much was made in the clickbait media of Lawrence’s decision to do nude scenes in this picture. However it is hard to ignore the influence of the male gaze as the camera lingers in certain scenes, feeling decidedly unsexy and more than a little sleazy.
There are some good performances from a host of British and Irish actors (Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge) but some of their attempts at a Russian accent prove distracting. More authenticity might have been achieved with Russian actors in supporting roles and, given the adult themes skewing this film towards a more mature audience, it is unlikely subtitles would have put moviegoers off. Listening to the ear candy that is a mysterious foreign language would have bumped the atmosphere further in the right direction. Mary-Louise Parker pops up as a corrupt chief-of-staff to an American politician which veers off piste in a campy direction for one scene before returning to normal service, as if it had been cut in from a different spy movie altogether.
Absent from the film is any reference to real world politics or people. Director Francis Lawrence made the decision to write out Vladimir Putin, who appears in Jason Matthews’ book, to avoid politicising the film and focus on the interaction of the characters. Though one couldn’t help but notice the casting of Matthias Schoenaerts as Vanya, who bears a passing resemblance to the younger ex-KGB man turned President. The direction of Lawrence, who worked with Jennifer Lawrence on The Hunger Games, throws up some good scenes throughout but the whole does not seem to be greater than the sum of its parts. Red Sparrow has had a middling opening weekend, taking in $17million on a $69million budget. It’s safe to say that this is largely down to the pulling power of A-lister Jennifer Lawrence who puts in a good performance without being entirely satisfying.
The violent bursts of action are shocking material, and while it feels strangely rewarding to visit the cinema and be treated like an adult, the whole affair lacks sufficient pace to build towards its climax. With two more Jason Matthews novels in the Red Sparrow canon already in publication, we could yet see this develop in to a trilogy.