When trailers came out for Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, there were thoughts that the I Am Legend director had beaten Marvel at its own game and released a Black Widow movie in all but name. To be blunt, any ideas about Natasha Romanova should be left discreetly at the door before entering to see Red Sparrow. There’s a chance that the film and the novel have been influenced by the character in certain areas, but this is far from something you can take the kids to.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who is forced to end her career after a particularly heinous act of professional jealousy. Struggling to make ends meet, all whilst looking after her sick mother, Dominika’s Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high up member of Russian intelligence, offers to take his niece under his wing. Sadly for Dominika, Ivan’s goodwill is part of larger plan that sees her being forced to train as a ‘Sparrow’, an operative who uses their body to extract information from their subjects. Led by The Matron (Charlotte Rampling), Dominika and her classmates have their personalities deconstructed and their sexuality made clinical. When they’re spat out the other end, they’re good for two things: f**king and fighting. Dominika manages to maintain a part of herself and this is what carries her through her first mission as a Sparrow. Dispatched to Budapest by her dear uncle, she must track down CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and, through him, find out who in the Russia SVR has been selling secrets to the Americans.
Let’s be up front, Red Sparrow is remarkably problematic for several reasons. Many of these can be found in what should really have been the film’s short training montage. In front of her class of nubile men and women, The Matron instils the virtues of unemotionally giving your body over to others in the pursuit of Russia’s glory. A student is coerced into giving oral sex to a prisoner, we witness the students being forced to watch hardcore pornography and, in one of the strangest scenes, Dominika faces up to a student who tried to rape her by stripping naked and using his desire for power against him. The intent of the scene is clear, but it’ll take you a while to remove that frown.
Everything up to these scenes manages to subtly play upon the misogyny that taints Dominika’s world. If she’s not having her back rubbed by sleazy politicians in photo opps, her own mother is warning her against her uncle’s fondness for her. Stripped of her ability to dance, she is forced to believe that her body is the only useful for one other thing. And then the film turns into Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS for too long a period.
Thankfully, once we’re in Budapest, Red Sparrow settles down with its attempts to shock and becomes something more akin to Atomic Blonde, with Justin Haythe’s screenplay opting to play with the idea of whether Dominika is working for or against the Russians. The film continues to engage like it did at the start, and the prolonged stay at ‘Whore school’, as Dominika calls it, feels like the fevered dream of a teenager with a severe problem with nudity.
Even in tepid films like Joy, Lawrence never fails to impress, and, despite a rather iffy accent, she successfully plays Dominika as someone desperate to escape their new life, but too entrenched to do so. It could have been easy to have our protagonist Sparrow rutting around Eastern Europe like it’s some long forgotten erotic thriller. However, the film wisely allows Dominika to use her newly learnt talents without having to give herself over completely. It establishes a sense of humanity in her that overshadows the sex bot 3000 motif that the marketing department was hoping you’d go for.
Next to Lawrence, Edgerton doesn’t fare as well. Rightly, we know every little about Nash, but this plays in Edgerton’s performance in which he seems to be sleeping walking through most of it. It’s not distracting, but you do wonder what he was going for. Which is something that cannot be said about Mary-Louise Parker who throws some levity into the film as an alcoholic Chief of Staff. Somewhere in the multiverse there’s a cut of Red Sparrow that follows her and her binge drinking across Europe, and it’s amazing.
Smart and slick, but suffering from some serious misjudgements in tone, Red Sparrow is a rollicking spy thriller. This is not a misogynistic film, it’s a film about misogyny. It just doesn’t know how it wants to say what it wants to say.