Red Sparrow

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Francis Lawrence

Starring

Jennifer Lawrence Joel Edgerton Matthias Schoenaerts

Anticipation.

Another spy thriller? Jennifer Lawrence is cool, though.

Enjoyment.

Violent and long. This isn’t exactly boring, but it’s not very fulfilling either.

In Retrospect.

Some interesting ideas, but ultimately just another film using sexual violence as a plot point.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Soviet spy whose repeated abuse leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

If Atomic Blonde answered chiefly to the John Wick series and Kraftwerk music videos for its influences, this latest exercise in retro-styled post-Cold War brutality borrows its palette and glacial pacing in the paranoid and beige likes of The Russia House, No Way Out and The Fourth Protocol. With that sombre tone established, Red Sparrow, a resolutely self-serious and severe film from director Francis Lawrence, sets its stakes high from the start and only raises them from there.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi whose career is ended when her dance partner (played by real-life dancer Sergei Polunin) lands on her leg and breaks it. The violence of this scene feels cooly sadistic, but the film is carefully constructed to justify every brutal moment. In this instance, Dominika’s broken leg turns out to be no accident: her dance partner and his girlfriend planned the attack in order to retire Dominika. According to the rules of this dog-eat-dog world, the ex-ballerina’s sadistic retribution is fair game.

Dominika is tipped off on her dance partner’s culpability by her slippery uncle Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts, going full Putin), who works for a shady Russian spy organisation. In exchange for this small service, and in order to get some money to pay her sickly mother’s medical bills, she agrees to carry out a seemingly small task for him: seduce a man in a hotel and switch his phone for a bugged one. The incident escalates and the man has the time to rape Dominika before a Russian spy arrives fashionably late and kills him in the middle of the attack.

Throughout the film, the balance of power is always unfairly tilted against Dominika. She is put through the most gruelling ordeals, but it seems that no amount of payback will bring an end to her suffering. Having done exactly what her uncle asks of her, Dominika finds herself back up against the wall, forced to choose between dying because she’s seen too much, or becoming a spy herself.

Once again, the film finds a way to superficially justify misogynistic violence and torture by characterising the world of Russian spies – if not Russia as a whole – as a deeply sexist environment where women are consistently undermined. This most clearly evident in the spy school where Dominika is sent to become a ‘Sparrow’, a special agent trained to give subjects what they want in order to extract information from them.

Led by Charlotte Rampling at her villainous best as a sort of kinky ex-KGB matron, most of the lessons taught at the school are not about fighting sexism but exploiting it, with Sparrows expected to sacrifice their body for the greater cause. But Dominika does not yield to the principles of “whore school”, as she calls it. Instead, she is tempted to become a mole for the Americans, who, in the figure of Joel Edgerton’s loving Nate Nash, treat her with much more respect.

This is a cynical and schematic film in which all the pieces fit neatly together, but its slick structure fails to account for the more complex and unstable psychological consequences of sexual violence. A scene in which Dominika explains the power play behind rape is accurate – but it’s not enough. The orderly, slick nature of the film ultimately makes it hard to connect with and feel for Dominika. Which is disturbing, considering everything she goes through. It’s a film that leaves us with a gnawing sense that the real problem remains hanging in the air, unresolved.

Published 1 Mar 2018

Tags: Francis Lawrence Jennifer Lawrence Joel Edgerton Matthias Schoenaerts

Anticipation.

Another spy thriller? Jennifer Lawrence is cool, though.

Enjoyment.

Violent and long. This isn’t exactly boring, but it’s not very fulfilling either.

In Retrospect.

Some interesting ideas, but ultimately just another film using sexual violence as a plot point.

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