Review – ‘Red Sparrow’ is a defiantly unsexy tale of espionage and control

Poster for 2018 spy thriller Red Sparrow

Genre: Thriller
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 1st March 2018
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Justin Haythe
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Mary-Louise Parker
Synopsis: A dreadful ballet accident cuts short a top dancer’s career. Her uncle gives her the opportunity to earn some money and she soon finds herself learning the ways of spy craft.

 

 

Despite her status as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Jennifer Lawrence has spent the last 12 months stretching that celebrity aura as far as she possibly can. Her committed turn at the centre of Darren Aronofsky‘s unchained nightmare mother! was a clear statement of non-conformist intent and she has followed it up with Red Sparrow – sold as a sexy spy thriller. The sex, however, is a far cry from the soft-focus hues of Fifty Shades of Grey and the spying is considerably more cerebral than James Bond bonking his way around the world at the wheel of a gadget-packed sports car.

This is a different world of spying, full of careful codes and where the question of control is far more important than who’s fastest to pull the trigger. Francis Lawrence crafts a chilly tale of espionage that seems initially to be ripped straight from the history of the Cold War, right up until a character mentions social media and it becomes abundantly clear that this is an even colder war – one so cold that we don’t even know we’re fighting it.

It’s into the midst of this frosty world that the audience is immediately dropped, with a gripping opening that interweaves a tense meet-up in a park involving Joel Edgerton‘s CIA agent and the elegance of a performance from ballerina Dominika (Lawrence). One culminates in a gunshot, while the other leaves Dominika with a career-ending broken leg that throws her ability to afford medical care for her ill mother into question. This situation is capitalised upon with gusto by Dominika’s uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a seedy spymaster who forces his niece into a nightmarish hotel room encounter that explodes into violence.

Red Sparrow takes its time in positioning the pieces of its story. At almost two and a half hours, Lawrence is afforded room to tease out his narrative threads, which gives the whole movie a compelling sense of a director exercising methodical control, aided by a script from Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness) that has an equally sure handle on its secrets and when to unveil them. Its those secrets that get Dominika into trouble. Her uncle ensures she is not killed for what she has seen, but she is coerced into joining the ‘Sparrow’ programme, led by Charlotte Rampling‘s detached, clinical instructor. She will learn how to decipher the “puzzle of need” that human beings represent, in order to become the “missing piece”. That’s the spin anyway, though Dominika derisively refers to the training as “whore school”, as the “missing piece” is almost invariably sexual in some way, shape or form.

It’s Lawrence’s performance that is the central marvel of Red Sparrow. While mother! allowed her to embrace her melodramatic side, this is a far more internal affair. Dominika is an unreadable character and a woman who refuses to fit in even with the unconventional methods taught through the Sparrow programme. She seems to have an innate understanding of the way this all works, as if the end of her ballerina career tore her in two in the manner of Lady Macbeth willing the forces of evil to “unsex me here”. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality to her worldview, at least until she crosses paths with Edgerton in Budapest and contemplates switching sides.

Soon, everyone is betraying everyone else and intentions become impossible to discern. Francis Lawrence dares the audience to solve his puzzle of double and triple crosses with a story that’s several steps ahead of the audience at all times, with sex playing a major role.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in spy thriller Red Sparrow
Jennifer Lawrence stars in spy thriller Red Sparrow

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s that element of Red Sparrow that has been the focus of its marketing. But this is far from a movie about sexy spies engaging in sexy escapades while looking sexy. The story presents sex as a cold tool for manipulation, with every discarded piece of clothing and hand against flesh serving a purpose. This isn’t sex for pleasure; it’s sexuality as a key to the human mind, and every character in this movie is guilty of that.

The world of this movie is one populated with extreme violence and Lawrence never turns his camera away from that, whether it’s knives slashing at torsos or a particularly hideous torture scene involving a tool used for skin grafts. Red Sparrow was cut before it was formally submitted to the BBFC because the studio was advised it would likely receive an 18 certificate, and the edge has certainly remained. This is tough, unflinching violence that feels bracingly real and almost unwatchably brutal. Wisely, this is not overused and the movie is far from an unyielding bloodbath.

In fact, Red Sparrow is a rather talky film, particularly considering its emphasis on sex, violence and the intersection of the two. The plotting is labyrinthine and complex, culminating in the customary montage of revelations that appear to make sense in the moment, but almost certainly crumble like moist pastry under close scrutiny. There’s a languorous pace to proceedings, but also a sense that the director and screenwriter are every bit as in control as the characters. The final twist of the knife is a tremendous moment and an ambiguous coda puts the final feather in the cap of the film’s sense of cold, clinical calculation of what human beings want.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Red Sparrow is a movie that has been elevated to multiplex blockbuster status by virtue of its leading lady, but is actually far more interesting than its sexy spy marketing suggests. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a compelling performance at the centre of a movie that has the icy heart of a Siberian winter and an edge that never ceases to amaze and disgust.

Francis Lawrence is a director in full control of a story that could easily have come off the rails, delivering a gripping and involving tale of spy craft in which the audience is always kept guessing.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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