‘Red Sparrow’ – Grim and Uncomfortable Viewing | Film Review
The spy-thriller Red Sparrow is the latest star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence and it is a film that is over-reliant on shock value to tell its story.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is the star ballerina at the Bolshoi whose career is cut short after her leg is broken during a performance. Desperate for money Dominika turns to her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a senior figure in the Russian intelligence community and arranges for her to go to a school to teach her the arts of seduction.
Dominika is then given her first mission, to go to Budapest and seduce Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and find out who his contact is in the Russian government. Soon loyalties are questioned and shift in this murky world.
Red Sparrow was based on a novel by Jason Matthews who worked as a CIA operative and was able to sell the film rights before it was published. The novel has been praised for its realism – particular regarding surveillance and counter-espionage – and this was where the film adaptation was at its strongest.
When Nate was introduced he was meeting his contact in Gorky Park. There was a Cold War vibe to it as they try and exchange information. The other realistic operation was when the CIA was trying to catch a corrupt American political figure. This was when the film was at its most interesting because there was actual tension in these scenes and didn’t rely on the sex and violence. But these scenes are too few and far between.
Red Sparrow is timely film, whether it was intentional or not. It taps into both the growing threat from the Putin government with Russia expanding its spying operations and the rise of the #MeToo movement. Red Sparrow was uncomfortable viewing because of its sexual content. There was an unpleasant rape scene that just felt exploitative since the subject of rape needs to be handled with the utmost delicacy.
This material doesn’t get much better when Dominika goes to State School or as she rightly calls it ‘Whore School’. There was an uncomfortable scene – the students psychoanalyse diplomats and politicians regarding their sexual preferences and one character is nearly forced to perform oral sex in front of the whole class. It’s too uncomfortable to make the film entertaining nor is this portion of the film compelling or insightful enough to allow audiences to be invested.
Francis Lawrence, the director of three of the four Hunger Games films, does get the desired effect from scenes that are meant to be tense with the repulsive sex scenes and when a spy operation goes wrong. But he is served with a poor screenplay from Justin Haythe – was more interested in the sexual content than telling a compelling story.
The other issue about the film is its plausibility regarding Dominika’s character. She is a woman with no intelligence or espionage experience and all she’s taught at State School is how to seduce and arouse men. Yet after three months of training she’s set to the field and is able to go toe-to-toe with experienced CIA and Russian agents and set up complex plans.
The film is clearly going for an empowerment message for Dominika because she is able to take control of her own destiny – but come on, there needs to be a bit more believability with the character and plot developments.
Red Sparrow could have been comparable to another adaptation of a popular novel: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both focus on smart and resourceful women who are sexually exploited who have to take control – and both stories provide a commentary about the treatment of women. But the filmmakers behind the Swedish and American versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo knew that the story and the mystery came first and didn’t use sexual content to sell the adaptation but serve the story.
Red Sparrow is too grim and depressing to be anything close to entertaining or being a blockbuster as it has been advertised. Nor is the film adaptation smart or nuanced enough to justify its more controversial material – leaving nothing but a bitter taste.