Jennifer Lawrence reunites with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (who directed Catching Fire and the two-part Mockingbird finale) on Red Sparrow, an adaptation of the novel of the same name written by former CIA operative Jason Matthews. It’s an unabashedly in-your-face thriller, occasionally relishing in the plot’s, let’s say, carnal elements and brutal turns. But don’t misconstrue that as an overall negative; in fact, while it certainly has issues, Red Sparrow proves to be an overall pretty solid film.
The film follows Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a young Russian woman whose career as a professional ballerina is abruptly cut short by an injury she suffers on stage. Smelling an opportunity, Dominika’s highly dubious uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), finds a way to coerce her into joining the Russian intelligence service. She’s left little choice in the matter, her unwell mother (Joely Richardson) but one of the reasons for Dominika to do as she’s told. After a horrifying training period, where she is trained to become a “red sparrow”, to use her body to seduce enemies, Dominika lands her first mission: make contact and earn the trust of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a C.I.A. officer.
Following Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence has herself another challenging role here. This is referring to not only the hardships that the character is forced to endure, including sexual assault and incessant life-threatening situations, but the growth she must demonstrate underneath her consistently icy exterior. Despite the bumpy Russian accent, Lawrence gives it her all, and almost shows as much, in a strong turn that is occasionally hampered by the almost one-note characterisation the screenplay – by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Lone Ranger) – threatens to give her. Dominika’s cold demeanour holds up through most of the film, so it’s a relief to get the sporadic moment where we can break through. A little more would have drawn us further into her plight.
Dominika’s persona is similar to the film’s overall tone: keeping the viewer at arm’s length, so as to keep character motivation and its inevitable surprises hidden for as long as possible. It’s an understandable stance, but it proves a little hard to connect with the narrative beyond the surface-value entertainment on offer. Still, it is entertaining, even if director Lawrence’s determination to keep things moving at a measured yet, for this writer, mostly tense pace makes it a little slow for an almost 2 hour and 20-minute runtime. Those expecting a big action-oriented crescendo will be left wanting.
There’s a great cast here, and they’re mostly good with what they are given. Seeing as he is the film’s second primary character, Edgerton’s Nate simply isn’t given enough depth. Edgerton does his best and the talented actor’s natural screen presence is always welcome, but when a big part of Nate’s characterisation is provided when someone reads out a few dossier points, you know there’s a bit of an issue. The usually reliable Schoenaerts does morally murky well, Jeremy Irons does his thing in a straightforward role, and Charlotte Rampling commands the screen during her moments as the pitiless “Matron”, the Headmistress of the Sparrow School.
As mentioned, the film does have its confronting moments, particularly during some of the training sequences. The frankness on display could be jarring to those expecting an easy-going action flick, but it’s also almost refreshing to witness in a studio spy film with a decent budget and a home-name star. A tighter pace, further characterisation and perhaps a more accessible screenplay would have pushed the film into a higher league. Nevertheless, for the most part, Red Sparrow is still a satisfying thriller. And, considering there are two more books in Matthews’ literary trilogy, I would only be too happy to continue following Dominika’s journey.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10