Red Sparrow carries the femme fatale spy thriller back to its cinematic heyday, thematically mirroring 1940’s film noir, but it is undoubtedly Jennifer Lawrence’s acting prowess as the titular vixen that steals the show.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who, after her career is sabotaged by a brutal leg injury, finds herself a playtoy for the patriarchal Russian Intelligence service, where she is put through the rigorous Sparrow School of espionage, in order to learn how to use her body as a weapon of national defence.
In some respects, the character represents the West’s intoxication with the sexy ‘honey trap’ girl, those like the captured Russian spy, and media temptress, Anna Chapman, who gained worldwide notoriety early in the decade when she was caught on camera in New York (among 10 spies who were arrested and expelled from the U.S.).
Lawrence has her own unique take on the sexy spy, and whilst her ‘Boris and Natasha’ accent is at first distracting, revealing how much a part of her charisma lies in her husky voice, she comes to completely own the character and deliver many unexpected turns in her poker-face performance.
Francis Lawrence, no relation to Jennifer, carries on directing her from the Hunger Games series, and shows his competency in the genre, blocking the scenes in particularly meaningful ways that accentuate the drama. The thematically driven production design manages to captivate the viewer in ways unseen in the femme fatale spy genre, in my opinion, since Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) or The Maltese Falcon (1941).
The story is based on a 2013 novel of the same name, written by retired CIA operative Jason Matthews, and was adapted into a screenplay by Justin Haythe, known for the tragic Revolutionary Road (2008). The writing is simplistic but effective, and the only sorry point in the adaption was excluding the original Red Sparrow’s ability to discern the nature of people by seeing their emotions in colors, due to her synesthesia, which would have made for some very interesting visuals.
In some sense, the story is your classic ‘search for the mole’ story, embodied in films like Mission Impossible (1996), although there is an obviously intentional, topical overtone surrounding feminine empowerment and sexual power-plays exploited in the film. With a grim rawness that seems to derive from the earliest Daniel Craig James Bond movies, there is a high level of violence, and torture, nudity, and sexual investigation for a Hollywood movie, and whilst the writer and director are evidently making a pro feminist statement, in the wake of recent movements, there is a slightly sexist undertone to the portrayal of female power. The spy school at times almost resembles the creepy sex cult personified in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The promotional material for Red Sparrow challenged its audience to ‘Take back control’, and through the exploration of the Sparrow School (which teaches women how to know what their target desires and exploit that through sex), female power is explored through different shapes. From extreme violence in retaliation to rape, to claiming and using sex to dominate men, even containing a Harvey Weinstein-resembling boss who gets his comeuppance. However, the ultimate message seems to be that pursuing legal or collective bargaining as a means to evade harassment are cowardly and unfeminine, as compared to raw sexual power plays.
Lawrence’s character is forced to confront the reality of the military, where power is inherently attained through violence, and the inescapable truth that patriarchy extends even to one’s own family. After all, it is Egorova’s own uncle who has the power over her to decide her fate, on whether she lives or dies in service to the Russian government. Lawrence manages to survive the ordeals subjected on her, however, and her objection that her Uncle has sent her to ‘whore school’ garnered loud gestures of empathy from the audience.
One major success of the film, other than Jennifer Lawrence, is capturing the paranoid times we live in. Exploiting the return of cold war antagonism; in the era of heightened espionage, election tampering, Donald Trump’s alleged golden shower tape, all of which have 1970’s parallels to Nixon, Watergate, the paranoia surrounding JFK’s assassination, Marina Oswald and the U2 bombers. The themes of the global media seem to travel in loops, just as feminism does in a given society – yet oddly Red Sparrow seems to gloss over true Russian feminism, like the Pussy Riot campaign, in order to enforce its own doctrine of what femininity means.
The support acting in Red Sparrow is all worthy of note. Joel Edgerton as the one-dimensional Nate Nash, remains wholly unconvincing as an American, but does provide a good avenue for Australian audiences to feel immersed in the action. Matthias Schoenaerts does an incredible Putin impression as Egorova’s Uncle, and Jeremy Irons is pleasing as always to watch, being more his rubbery Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) self, than his earlier Shakespearean nuanced method master. Charlotte Rampling plays the cold eyed matriarch who runs the Sparrow School well and also deserves credit for her performance.
The twists and turns of the plot are best left unspoiled for the audience to uncover, but this film, though at times overplayed and lagging for resolution, will bring intrigue to fans of the genre, and has plenty of surprises up its sleeves for punters.
Jennifer Lawrence practiced her Russian accent for four months in preparation for the film, and spent three hours a day for four months learning ballet with instructor Kurt Froman, in spite the fact she doesn’t enjoy ballet whatsoever.