Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Red Sparrow is a spy thriller film released in 2018 and is based on the 2013 novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews. The film follows a former Russian ballerina who is forced into becoming a seductive spy on the trail of an American link to a mole within the Russian government. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Irons and it was directed by Francis Lawrence. Matthews advised the film's production, based on his knowledge on real-life espionage schools in Russia which promoted the technique of seduction and sex in order to gain intelligence. The film received a fairly mixed response from critics, although Lawrence's performance was praised. The film was also a modest success at the box office with global earnings of $151 million. Director Lawrence has previously hinted that he may be interested in directing a sequel based on other books written by Matthews, specifically Palace of Treason or The Kremlin's Candidate.
What's It About?
Famous Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova spends her time away from the stage tending to her ill mother. After a horrific injury ends her career and she is financially cut off from the Bolshoi, she spirals into depression before being contacted by her uncle Ivan who works in the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency. Ivan offers Dominika a proposal - seduce a Russian gangster named Dimitri Ustinov and Ivan will ensure that her mother receives the medical care she requires. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nate Nash meets with a contact at night before being rumbled by the police. Ensuring that his contact escapes safely, Nash is pulled out of Moscow by the Americans who then spend the next six months trying to re-establish contact.
After the meeting with Ustinov turns deadly, Dominika is then sent to State School 4 - a harsh training camp to turn men and women into spies specially trained in seduction. Despite clashing with her tutor, the unflinching Matron, Dominika is recruited by senior Russian official General Vladimir Korchnoi to track down Nash in Budapest and earn his trust in the hope of learning the identity of his contact, a mole known only as Marble. But Nash sees through her disguise and attempts to get her to switch sides by working for the Americans...
General Vladimir Korchnoi
Release Date (UK)
1st March, 2018
Action, Drama, Thriller
What's to Like?
Not surprisingly given the author's past with the CIA, Red Sparrow feels like a Cold War throwback despite being set in the present day. This is not only underscored by the film's narrative but the cinematography as well, featuring lots of cold Soviet-style architecture and locations and a picturesque jaunt through much of eastern Europe as well. The faded colour palette also gives the film an aged look, reminding me of the dull greys and browns of the similarly-themed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation with Gary Oldman. For fans of convoluted spy thrillers, this film's narrative is a doozie as it twists and turns one way and then the next but personally, I struggled to keep up with what was going on and why. I prefer my spy thrillers with some action involved like The Bourne Identity, another film that has echoes visible here.
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Jennifer Lawrence delivers another powerhouse performance as Dominika, a character with much more depth than the others. As she evolves from frightened young woman to cold-hearted femme fatale, she brings a sexy and powerful character to the mix and by the end, I wanted to see the next chapter of her story. However, I don't envy her as Dominika is abused and humiliated through much of the film to the point where it felt uncomfortable to watch which I guess is kinda the point. For all its claims of being based in reality, it's hard not to think that the film is demonising Russia for a practise which is conducted by nations everywhere including the United States. Nevertheless, the film looks great and somehow keeps you engaged just enough to distract you from the lack of energy the film possesses.
- None of the Russian characters in the film are played by Russian actors - they are either British, American, Ukranian, Irish, Belgian, German, Dutch or Polish. Meanwhile, the lead American character Nate Nash is played by an Australian.
- Many people have observed the physical resemblance of Matthias Schoenaerts to Russian president Vladimir Putin but director Lawrence claims this was unintentional. Putin is actually an important character in the book but was omitted from the film for 'creative reasons'.
- The film marks Lawrence's first nude scenes despite her previous insistance that she wouldn't do nudity for a film. Lawrence later explained that the film was a challenge but after her phone was hacked in 2014 that leaked private photos online, she saw the film as a way of taking back control of her image and felt empowered after her scenes were shot.
- The film was originally going to receive an 18 rating from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) which was higher than Fox intended. Asking the BBFC for advice on how to lower the rating to the desired 15, the filmmakers made the neccesary changes demanded and the film officially earned its 15 rating when it was finally submitted.
What's Not to Like?
Unfortunately, a dynamite performance from Jennifer Lawrence isn't enough to save this depressing throwback. Despite its modern setting, it feels so old fashioned and uninspired that it almost verges on parody at times - with less brutality and more humour, it could have been a comedy. From the drab sets and costumes to the tired dialogue that feels borrowed from a John le Carre novel, the film is about thirty years too late to feel relevant any more. Take Rampling's curiously English-sounding Matron who both looks like and acts like a more psychotic Rosa Klebb from From Russia With Love (which could almost be this film's title as well). Speaking of accents, nearly the entire cast speak with their best faux-Russian accents which don't help the film's attempts at authenticity. Think of Robbie Coltrane in GoldenEye and you'll know what I mean.
But the film's biggest problem is its pacing. It feels so slow and plodding in its story telling and only really gets interesting when it's relying on Jennifer Lawrence's nudity (which couldn't feel more exploitative and seedy if it tried) or another brutal torture sequence. The story meanders like the Volga river and the ending felt both rushed and unsatisfying. For all the film's supposed basis in reality, the whole thing feels like a flick through a big book of spy cliches but doesn't spend any time delivering the requisite action such films usually provide. There are no epic fight sequences or gun battles, no car chases or explosions to get the blood pumping so the viewer is left as cold as Siberian snowfall. I watched the film pleading for something to happen but it refused, absorbed in its own narrative and uninterested in being watchable. It's a well made film but not one that entertains or thrills and surely Lawrence's performance deserves better than this.
Should I Watch It?
Beyond Lawrence making a claim to being one of the best female actors around, Red Sparrow does very little to inspire or engage viewers. It feels old fashioned and heavily inspired from countless Cold War thrillers we've already seen before, bringing little else besides rare examples of brutal violence and needless titillation. It's also too slow, too long and too boring to really recommend which is a shame because Jennifer Lawrence deserves better than this hackneyed claptrap.
Great For: internet perverts, Jennifer Lawrence's credibility as an actress, putting people to sleep, fans of John le Carre or Matthew's original novel
Not So Great For: fans of more action-orientated fare, adrenaline junkies, Russian audiences
What Else Should I Watch?
I got the feeling that Red Sparrow desperately wanted to make a female James Bond-type character for the cinema, something audiences have been crying out for. While we wait for the Black Widow movie (which Marvel produced about eight years too late in my opinion) which offers uncanny parallels to this movie's narrative, most female-led spy films have tended to unwhelm somewhat in the past. Angelina Jolie gave it her all in the action-packed Salt while Charlize Theron made things interesting in Atomic Blonde but neither really caught fire at the box office the way 007 has been lately. Even the really good examples like the off-beat and otherworldly Hanna have been overshadowed by more traditional fare which is a pity. I, for one, would love to see Quentin Tarantino finally get around to producing a cinematic revival of Modesty Blaise which is simply dying for an update from its 1966 outing featuring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp.
Red Sparrow marks the fourth film the Lawrences have worked together on although they are not related. Since Francis took over the director's chair for the blockbusting sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, he then helmed the next two films in the series - Mockingjay Part One and Mockingjay Part Two. With a prequel still in development and an impressive $2.9 billion earned at the box office (there have been just four films so far), The Hunger Games is one of the most popular sci-fi franchises in Hollywood that have successfully adapted Suzanne Collins' trilogy of books for the big screen. They have also helped Jennifer Lawrence launch herself firmly onto the A-list which culminated in her Oscar-winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox