Film & Television

‘Red Sparrow’ keeps us guessing, to a point

By Harry Windsor
Jennifer Lawrence reunites with her ‘Hunger Games’ director in this dated thriller

Based on a book written in 2013, the new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow manages to be both topical and wildly behind the times. Directed by Francis Lawrence, who oversaw the last few Hunger Games films, it’s a spy thriller about Dominika (Lawrence), a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi who suffers a gruesome accident onstage and finds herself manipulated into working for Russian intelligence by her unscrupulous spook uncle (Rust and Bone’s Matthias Schoenaerts).

It’s enjoyably ridiculous, stocked full of Brit staples (Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons) doing wonky Russian accents, and it’s the kind of densely plotted thriller that studios have largely abandoned to television. It’s also propaganda in the Bruckheimer-Bay mould, in which the virtuous American government goes up against Russian brutes who wear fine suits and do things unconscionable, like, you know, torture people.

Dominika discovers she’s been sabotaged by the male principal (real-life dancer Sergei Polunin, of “Take Me to Church” fame), a revelation lent a smidgen of unlikely credibility by the Bolshoi’s 2013 acid scandal. Her response announces just who we’re dealing with: leaving the wintry flat in which she tends to her invalid mother (Joely Richardson), she follows the destroyers of her career into a sauna, where she interrupts their fucking to royally fuck them up – and this is a nice touch – with her new cane.

Red Sparrow doesn’t stint on the gore, here or elsewhere, and Dominika’s comfort with it marks her out as a killer from the start. After she’s dangled in front of an oligarch as bait and witnesses his extrajudicial garrotting by the state, her uncle gives her a choice: work for us or die. And so it’s off to sparrow training, or “whore school”, as Dominika puts it, where Rampling teaches her how to manipulate a mark by diagnosing their wants and needs – and filling the lack.

Sadly deprived of the chance to chew on a Russian accent is Joel Edgerton as Nate, a CIA operative whose story is intercut with Dominika’s until they join up, after she’s tasked with uncovering the FIS mole he’s been running for years. Part of the fun of Justin Haythe’s script, an adaptation of the novel by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews, is its ability to keep us guessing: is Dominika playing Nate, cowed by fear of her uncle’s positively medieval enforcer (the Teutonic Sebastian Hülk), or is she really looking for a way out?

A third possibility, that she’s actually a patriot deep down, never enters into it. The film’s politics preclude it. At one point the mole reveals him/herself to Dominika, rattling on about the rot festering at the heart of the Russian state; the pair might as well high-five each other.

The events of the last 12 months haven’t exactly made it hard to root against Russian baddies, but they do make the contrast that the film presents – between darkness and prairie light – a little tougher to swallow. It’s a boom era for Cold War fictions on the small screen (The Americans, Deutschland 83) and big (Atomic Blonde), but most of them are period pieces, whereas Red Sparrow is contemporary but not quite of the present moment.

It’s perhaps best appreciated as a showcase for some amusing supporting turns from perennials like Mary-Louise Parker and Bill Camp, both of whom play Americans. They’re salty, weary, vivid; detailed where their adversaries are rote. Parker gets a good line where she wonders at the beauty of Russian women, given all the men resemble toads. One of them rapes Dominika at the beginning of the film, and another, later on, attempts to do so. But Edgerton’s Nate is a gentleman – an American – and the last shot reframes the entire thing as something entirely unexpected, and perhaps not so out-of-date after all: a long-distance love story.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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