Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.
Runtime: 139 mins.
Australian release date: 1 March 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 28 February 2018.
Red Sparrow is director Francis Lawrence’s first feature since he directed the final three parts of The Hunger Games franchise, during the shooting of which he must have bonded with Jennifer Lawrence because she’s also the star of this spy thriller. This film, though, is more reality-based, as it comes from a 2013 eponymous novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews. Beginning in Moscow and then travelling between Hungary, London and back again, it’s a non-CGI action-packed drama that keeps you intrigued until the very end. Although the plot may seem far-fetched to us laymen it appears that events like it really do happen because the book was favourably reviewed by the CIA, who wrote that it contains “accurate, richly detailed renderings of anxiety-filled tasks conducted daily by intelligence operatives around the world."
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a renowned ballet dancer with the Bolshoi until she suffers a terrible on-stage accident that ruins her career. Her uncle Vanya (huh?), played by Matthias Schoenaerts, works high up in the Russian intelligence network and takes her under his wing, offering her the chance to get back on her feet (pun intended) and remain in the company-owned apartment where she lives with her infirm mother (Joely Richardson) and cover her mother’s medical bills. The offer, though, is not one she relishes. Dominika’s introduction to her new career takes place at a secret school where she learns to become a ‘sparrow’ - a specialised sexual spy - trained to use both her body and mind. The course is conducted by ‘Matron’ (Charlotte Rampling), a cold-hearted woman whose aim is to coerce her ‘sparrows’ into performing all kinds of sexual favours in return for gaining access to information needed by the Russians. Dominika’s first assignment is to seduce a CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who handles a Russian ‘mole’ who’s deeply embedded in the intelligence hierarchy. The operation inevitably leads to mayhem, intrigue, double-dealing and some quite confronting violence, especially in one particular scene when a surgical skin peeler is used for an act of torture.
Although some of Red Sparrow is not for the faint-hearted it’s better compared to the work of John le Carré than, say, Ian Fleming, because Justin Haythe’s clever screenplay works more on the shifting allegiances and apparent duplicity of the leads than the action. There are so many twists and turns you end up feeling dizzy. Dominika is plucky and determined to sort out her problems, both personal and professional, and to play her Lawrence adopts a Russian accent that falters at times but doesn’t distract too much from the character. She is decked out in a wardrobe that makes you wonder how she found the time to purchase it, à la Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. Lawrence and Edgerton work well together but it must be said that although the latter is a fine actor he lacks the charisma for this kind of role. He is far better suited to characters where he has to show some real sensitivity, as seen in roles such as Richard in Loving and Paul in It Comes At Night. There are solid performances, too, from Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi, replete with a mat of medals on his chest, and Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s insidious uncle Vanya. Red Sparrow is a taut two-and-a-half hours that leads to a thoroughly satisfying denouement. It gives you the impression that the #MeToo movement has already been embraced by Hollywood because we’re starting to see female characters who, when placed in precarious situations forced on them by men, are able to succeed in overpowering their oppressors.