Rather like Daniel Radcliffe before her, post-franchise Jennifer Lawrence has embarked on the unwieldy path of cinematic experimentation of late. Taking risks like mother! has the potential for high hits and major misses. Red Sparrow is a bit of both.
Reunited with three-times Hunger Games-director: Francis Lawrence (no relation), Lawrence here plays renowned Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova, who is forced into chauvinist-dominated espionage after unwittingly witnessing the murder of a politician. In a breathtaking and symbolically imbibed opening sequence, we watch as Dominika performs on stage in parallel with the machinations of CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and fall to her career demise in an on-stage accident. Like a falling domino it is this starkly shot tragedy that will lead Dominika to witnessing that fateful murder and send her life spiralling thereafter.
No longer able to perform, and struggling to support her sick mother, Dominika is backed into a dark corner by her Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) and sent off to Sparrow School. There, alongside a mixture of willing and vulnerable recruits, she will learn how to seduce the enemy, exploit and extract: ‘Every human being is a puzzle of need,’ purrs Charlotte Rampling’s Matron, ‘learn how to be the missing piece’.
Though there is certainly surface similarity here to David Leitch’s recent Atomic Blonde, with Lawrence often a match for Theron’s own blonde bombshell, Red Sparrow makes no hesitation in establishing from the off that this time it’s serious. Shot in stylishly bleached tones, the film is relentlessly bleak in its pessimistic approach to human nature. Torture, rape and murder are brutally presented and Lawrence is dragged through all three in ways that remind worryingly of Hitchcock’s treatment of his female leads. This would be uncomfortable viewing even if it wasn’t so excruciatingly graphic.
Admirable that it is for studios to invest in higher-budget and challenging cinema, there is almost a sense that Red Sparrow is perhaps too much. On its own ground, Lawrence’s film is a decent thriller, intricately plotted and smartly produced. The problem is that the film does not stand on its own ground but exists in our own contemporary context, which has the effect of nudging its complex gender and transnational politics towards bad taste. Russia, we are told, is a country of corruption and amorality in which women are ripe for sexploitation. The apple may not fall far from the tree but is this helpful?
Whilst there’s no denying that Lawrence is a star of exuberant charisma, hers is a subdued and rather flat role here that denies much opportunity to shine. That she is forced to attempt a shaky Russian accent throughout (the same is true for Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds et al) does her no favours, even going so far as to barrier us from unrestrained empathy.
Ultimately, Red Sparrow is ambitious and daring, which is to be admired, but troubling in equal measure.