Film review | Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence gives it her all in this by turns pulpy and glum espionage thriller • 2/5

Wasted potential: Jennifer Lawrence does her best in this muddled and problematic espionage thriller
Wasted potential: Jennifer Lawrence does her best in this muddled and problematic espionage thriller

There’s something distinctly old-fashioned about Red Sparrow – the most recent espionage thriller to grace our screens in a time when the genre has already started to ossify into something of a historical relic. Indeed, in an age when the very rudiments of that profession are relegated to data-mining nerds strapped behind office desks, the charm and romance of the cloak-and-dagger is all but gone, and there’s only so many John Le Carre novels we can adapt ad nauseum.

So that Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of Jason Matthews’s novel, which reunites the director with his Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) after having directed her in that very first installment of the zeitgeist-defining Young Adult saga.

And though ostensibly set in the world of the internet and smartphones – “social media” is sneeringly referred to as an example of the decadent West by Charlotte Rampling’s matronly figure who goes by, erm, Matron – we are introduced into the film’s chilly milieu by way of some of the most classical aesthetics imaginable.

Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova patters onto a lavish Moscow stage; she is a Bolshoi ballerina whose only chance at ensuring that her ill mother gets the care she needs is to dance her way to stability. After an on-stage accident renders her unable to continue performing, Dominika’s shady uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out. He nudges her into joining an elite Russian secret service programme that trains prospective candidates into becoming so-called ‘Red Sparrows’ – male and female operatives tasked with using both physical and psychological methods of manipulation in order to perform effective espionage missions... even down to erotic seduction.

While Dominika struggles to come to terms with the humiliation and discomfort she’s subjected to during these ‘initiation rituals’ – encouraged by her own uncle, no less – an American CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), worries that he may have put a Russian source of his in danger. Reassigned to Budapest, Nash’s trail leads him to cross path’s with Ivan’s own machinations... and Dominika herself. Egged on by both of their superiors to grow familiar with each other for the sake of extracting information, the two of them gradually begin to see each other as their respective ticket to freedom. But this becomes an increasingly dangerous game as the walls start to close in around them.

Crackling with nervous erotic energy and a twisty-turny plot that does good on some of the spy genre’s most satisfying tropes, it is Francis Lawrence’s direction that ultimately lets the whole project down. Aiming for something that feels, on the one hand, like the stuff of a 1970s exploitation movie – at one point, Dominika contemptuously refers to her Red Sparrow training as spending time in “whore school”, and she isn’t exactly wrong – and on the other, a serious-to-dour take on the espionage profession ala Le Carre, the style never settles into something we can truly follow and engage with.

Lawrence’s dull camera work and complete waste of European locales doesn’t help all that much either. With conversations filmed in boring shot/reverse shot ping-pong, the film possesses none of the suspense and psychological intensity that the genre at its best is known for, and the locations are wasted on equally nondescript interiors that showcase nothing of the overwhelming disorientation that Dominika is sure to be feeling all throughout.

Both Lawrence and Edgerton hold their own, and as the mercurial high-ranking Russian General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi, Jeremy Irons is a customary delight to watch.

But with a rambling running time, a script that never quite gets the hang of the intricate strands at play in the story, and directorial palette as dull as ditchwater, mark this one with the ‘Wasted Potential’ stamp. And that’s not even getting into the film’s clumsy handling of sexual assault as a motivating device, of which reams of condemnation deserve to be written...

Shady uncle: Matthias Schoenaerts
Shady uncle: Matthias Schoenaerts

The verdict

Though Jennifer Lawrence only continues to solidify her role as Hollywood It-Girl du jour, even with mediocre pap such as this, the wasted potential of Red Sparrow just screams at you out of every frame. What could have been truly dark and provocative material in the hands of a true master ends up being a quasi-workmanlike muddle when handled by Francis Lawrence – a director with no real signature or desire to delve into the rich array of obsession and pathology that lies at the core of this thrilling but equally disturbing story.