Because Spies Don’t Do Foreplay
Continuing the theme of ‘I Don’t Get Why They Hate It’, Red Sparrow (2018) sets a pretty underwhelming precedence online at the moment. Any film based on a novel (in this case, the novel by the same name by Jason Matthews) is going to have its fair share of detractors, but in this case, many viewers just seem completely non-plussed by the whole experience laid out by director Francis Lawrence.
In fact, if you were to skim read various review-based websites, you’re going to see a whole load of low-to-middling scores, with the general consensus peaking at 50-60% approval. What does this mean? Nothing. I couldn’t give a toss what score someone wants to attribute to a film, nor am I interested in what scale of rotten vegetable the film can be compared to – what I want to know is how does the story work, who are the characters and, most importantly of all, is the film worth watching – even just to see what someone tried to do?
So I state my case. Red Sparrow feels like an attempt to emulate the great spy novelist John le Carré, with a whole load of naughty sexy action thrown in. Does it work? Well..
So What Happens?
Opening in contemporary Russia, well renowned ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) carves out a living dancing in the evening, while supporting her sick mother Nina Egorova (Joely Richardson) and paying for her care. One evening, before a show starts, Dominika’s uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), approaches her, introducing Dimitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), a powerful man who takes an instant shine to Dominika.
Later, during a ballet performance, Dominika is pretty savagely injured by her dancing partner in an “accident” on stage. Badly injured, Dominika’s future as a dancer is immediately forgotten. Now forced to use a cane, the threat against her and her mother’s apartment and her mother’s care is looming over them. Without a job, the threat of eviction is real. One day, Ivan arrives at the home and offers Dominika an opportunity to get herself out of trouble – a job with him in Russian Intelligence. He lets her think about it, but leaves an audio recorder with Dominika between her former dancing partner, and his girlfriend – who just so happens to have replaced Dominika on stage.
We see our first glimpses of what is to come here. As Dominika travels to her old theatre, she creeps up on the pair mid-coitus, and proceeds to beat them both bloody on the floor of the sauna. It was during this scene that I became suddenly aware of the 15 year old teenage girl watching with her mother in the row in front of me. As Dominika swung her club into her usurper’s naked body, I started to wonder what the hell it takes for a film to get an 18 rating these days.
But anyway. Fresh from her revenge, Dominika heads to Ivan to find out more about this job. It becomes clear that he has his eyes on Dimitri Ustinov. Knowing that he took a shine to his niece, Ivan persuades her to dress up, pretty herself up and hang around a well known hotel bar until Dimitri makes contact. There, she was to lure him to her room and swap a mobile phone out with his.
Sounds easy enough, but after showing that Dominika has more than a little talent in the field, she manages to get him up to her room. Alone. Dimitri forces himself on her, and despite her struggles, she finds herself helpless. It’s about then that she notices a newly opened window – and then a shadow behind Dimitri. His throat slit, Dimitri collapses as the motorcycle-helmeted figure ushers Dominika out of the room and out to freedom.
It was a hit all along. Shaken, angry and afraid, Dominika is confronted by Ivan, who calmly states that from here, she has two choices. She can refuse to engage with further work – in which case, Ivan cannot protect her – or to join as a Sparrow – an intelligent unit made up of the most attractive members of the Russian military, their purpose to seduce and manipulate their targets.
The implication is clear, so Dominika reluctantly agrees, and is sent to training. Here she learns the lengths she – and her peers – must go to to achieve success. Taught that their bodies are the possessions of The State, and pride and honour come second to their mission, the class are taught to seduce, control and physically arouse their enemies in the least sexy way possible under the tutelage of the Matron (Charlotte Ramling). Dominika struggles against this system, and soon finds herself in the crosshairs of not only her classmates, but also the Matron and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons), who appears to have overall control of the project.
Dominika is pulled from training to start her work, and is quickly shipped out to Budapest in the search of a CIA Operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and to discover the name of his contact – and probable Russian mole. But as Dominika’s mission continues, it quickly becomes clear that Nate is not an easy opponent to outwit, and their pair begin to engage in an emotional relationship as Dominika’s allegiance becomes ever more taut.
It doesn’t take long for the chess board of intelligence operations to get tense and confusing, as each side pursues their objectives with Dominika firmly stuck in the middle. But will she discover the identify of the Russian mole, and which side will she turn to at the end of it all?
Didn’t I Do Well?
For all the criticism thrown at Red Sparrow, the most incomprehensible is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Lawrence is superb in her role as Dominika, with many other performances genuinely holding their own against her. The fury boiling beneath her outward appearance is palpable, and in the brief moments where she is able to release this energy it is definitely extremely cathartic. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s performance as a beaten down CIA Agent feels extremely well placed, invoking many of the tropes present in a lot of le Carré’s work set firmly in the Cold War.
This links on to my one major criticism, however. It’s 2018. The role of Russia is, admittedly, a treated with some hesitation in most media, but their portrayal in Red Sparrow feels very dated. Russia as the extreme left dictatorship shaking its fists across the Berlin Wall at America is all well and good, but it feels out of place when combined with smart phones and laptops.
I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right. Perhaps if the story weaved in some contemporary politics, particularly the Middle East, maybe it would have some further acknowledgement, but hey ho. Maybe this is all happening right now and I’m just unaware of it. It’s not like Russian spies are being assassinated in the green counties of England or anything.
Francis Lawrence’s direction is pretty stunning. The visuals and performances blend extremely well, with some suitably shocking violence that adds gravitas to the situation – even if the girl kept looking woefully over at her mum every 2 minutes. Likewise, the soundtrack by James Newton Howard adds a real sense of atmospheric dread to the proceedings.
That said, Red Sparrow never quite felt like it was getting into the swing of things. It all felt a little like it was trying to be smarter than it really was, and though I’ve compared it with the likes of le Carré, there was nothing there that really grabbed you and dragged you kicking and screaming into the world of the story, unlike, say, the astonishing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).
So is it worth the watch? Definitely. If you love spy fiction, then this is a must. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have done, there is enough here to keep you engaged.
Yours, A P Tyler