J-Law’s dominating screen presence only deepens the question: is Red Sparrow a feminist triumph or an ’80’s video nasty exploitation flick? Whichever it is, under the skin this is a remarkably old-fashioned Cold War espionage caper with only one twist in the switched female perspective and a cliché-o-meter that goes off the chart.
Beautiful Bolshoi ballerina (check); career-ending injury (check); lecherous older male mentor (check); recruitment into spy-school (check); fast-track into front-line operations (check); seduction of dishy, earnest CIA handler (check); hunt for a Russian mole (check); double and triple agents quadruple-crossing the powers that be (check). Predictable plotting and casting to a ribbon-wrapped outcome? Check.
So what’s new? An allegedly ‘gritty and realistic’ portrayal of a Russian agent forced by circumstance into the new Soviet-style spy school of seduction and honey-traps.
While it’s true that Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika is no kick-ass chick in the brutal but fantasy mode of Charlize’s Atomic Blonde, Gina Carano’s Haywire, Zoe’s Columbiana or even Anne Parillaud’s Nikita – she doesn’t even fire a gun – we’re still in Hollywood’s version of the spy game in which a novice agent is left to go rogue after less than six months training without an army of supervision.
Admittedly any prima ballerina at the Bolshoi has to be hard as granite, intellectually capable and emotionally resilient, but it’s a big leap to top international spy – however special a talent for ‘reading people’ and ‘seeing the truth of things’ she may possess. I think it’s the spy equivalent of using the Force.
While Lawrence adds some nuance to her PTSD-driven Mockingjay performance, there’s no way any Russian controller is going to put a petulent, resentful and downright ‘ornery young seductress into the field. And no way the CIA is just going to bite the poisoned apple dangled in front of them, just because their principled young agent thinks she can be turned after, oh, five minutes. No matter how quickly the two of them start bonking in the least sexy or plausible seduction.
With directing and writing credits including multiple Hunger Games, I am Legend, Constantine, American Hustle, Only the Brave, Snitch and The Lone Ranger, Francis Lawrence, Eric Singer and Justin Haythe may have upped their game, but it was a pretty handicapped game to start.
What is unsettling is the way Red Sparrow constantly letches after the lithe Lawrence, gamely glosses over a rape, various beatings, torture and assorted sexual humiliation. Tonally it’s all wrong, more like an Eli Roth torture-porn fest, leaving it all to Lawrence to try to clear up the mess, while you wonder how complicit Lawrence herself was and whether this is actually the movie – or the edit – she thought she was making. Her publicity tour indicates it is.
Propping up the shaky edifice is a reliable, if unsurprising, supporting cast making the most of the material: Joel Edgerton (Bright) a lacklustre leading man, Matthias Schoenaerts (A Little Chaos) the creepy uncle; old stagers Jeremy Irons (BvS:DoJ) and Charlotte Rampling (Babylon AD) an intelligence supremo and chilly spy school headmistress respectively. Mary Louise Parker and Thekla Reuten light up their otherwise dull sub-plots.
Ultimately the Tinker, Tailor, Bridge of Spies plotting requires a conventionally neat spy-game wrap-up and throws away most of it’s (ill-gotten) gains. Gender reversal aside, this is no cinematic revolution; Japanese and Korean cinema’s been doing this better for years. But if seeing Jennifer Lawrence getting brutalised for two hours is your thing, then go see it. RC
Red Sparrow (2018)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Eric Singer, Justin Haythe
Genre: Drama, thriller
Running time: 141 minutes
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Charlotte Rampling, Thekla Reuten, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Kristof Konrad, Sasha Frolova, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey