Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.
It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.
Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.
Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.
“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.