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Red Sparrow (2018) starring Jennifer Lawrence

From Russia with Love

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a ballerina in the Moscow State Ballet whose career is cut short after her leg is damaged in a tragic onstage supposed “accident”. This causes her immediate financial hardships as the company pays for both the apartment where she lives with her mother (Joely Richardson) as well as the latter’s medical bills.

Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for Russian intelligence, tells her that “there are no accidents”. Sure enough, she finds out that her erstwhile dancing partner had contrived the incident so that his girlfriend could come in and replace her. Dominika decides to retaliate by brutally assaulting the pair of them with a golf club in the company’s shower room.

Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow

Vanya offers a way out for her financial (and now legal) predicament by recruiting her into the so-called “Sparrows”, a group of intelligence operatives who lure their targets by seduction. She is put through rigorous training in a Siberian compound for a role which, at the end of the day, is a glorified state-sanctioned form of prostitution. After many gruelling days training, she proves her mettle via her highly effective manner of dealing with a would-be rapist.

Her first mission features her targeting a CIA agent named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who was caught by chance on Russian soil and has been extracted out of the country via the American embassy. The Russian intelligence services, led by Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds) are trying to find out who his contact in Moscow is. She pursues her target to Budapest, Hungary and gradually seduces him at a local swimming pool that he frequents. However, a bond starts to form between the two that causes Dominika to consider betraying her country.

Watch a trailer:

An attempt to modernise old Cold War cliches

Beneath its classy production values and cast, Red Sparrow is more or less a stodgily old-fashioned Cold War thriller (albeit set in the more modern West vs Russia equivalent of the old Soviet-era tensions) with the usual cliched trimmings. The plot is filled with layers of overcomplicated intrigue, the supposed “Russians” are played by English-speaking Western European actors with vaguely Eastern European accents and there’s lots of regulation dialogue of the “our superiors are losing patience” variety. Moreover, every location east of Austria is made to look drab and sickly - bedecked in the most unappealing greys, browns, yellows and greens imaginable. Having been to a number of erstwhile Communist countries in Europe myself, I can confirm that they are not entirely that depressing. It all amounts to a flurry of tired cinematic language that hasn’t moved on since the 1980s while the rest of the Western world has long jumped on flights and discovered a whole slew of fashionable new city break locations.

A jarring mixture

Nowadays, such musty fare needs to have something to draw in a modern audience. Atomic Blonde managed it by simply being a cool, kickass action flick. This one, however, tries desperately to carve out its own niche by on one hand wallowing in ugly scenes of rape and torture, on another by going for a feminine empowerment angle and on another (if people can actually have three hands!) by trying to get us to root for a romantic interest between Lawrence and Edgerton. While these three elements don’t exactly sound like the most compatible at the best of times, watching Red Sparrow doesn’t exactly allay any resultant concerns.

If you manage to look past the unpleasant and misjudged tone, however, the film does offer some good performances and scenes. There’s no doubt that Lawrence has put a lot of commitment into deglamourising herself and portraying a character who veers, in a heartbeat, between cold poise and human vulnerability throughout the film. There are some highlights amongst the supporting performances too, especially from Mary-Louise Parker as a drunken American diplomat who supplies information to the Russians. The scene where Lawrence’s Dominika turns the tables on a man who attempted to rape her by becoming sexually assertive (thus denying him the power trip that he craves) is a rare moment where the exploitative tone is actually shaped into something meaningful. Director Francis Lawrence handles the scenes of action and suspense competently, with a sequence involving some swapped computer discs being the highlight.

Overall, however, Red Sparrow is neither particularly enjoyable nor particularly enlightening - beyond enlightening the viewer as to the effects of using a skin-grafting instrument for a gruelling torture session, that is.

Runtime: 140 mins

Dir: Francis Lawrence

Script: Justin Haythe, based on a book by Jason Matthews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten

Rating: ☆☆

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