By Preston Wilder
I’ve heard all about you Red Sparrows, says the Budapest bureau chief: you play tricks on men’s minds. The bureau chief is a pig, like most men in this juicy spy thriller. Even while she’s still a prima ballerina, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) has to deal with men getting handsy: let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, coos a powerful tycoon, and squeezes just a little too intimately as he gives her a hug. Later, at Red Sparrow school, a fellow cadet tries to rape her, angered by Dominika being smarter than him. Later still, in the film’s best line, Dominika – now a Russian intelligence agent – is exchanging banter with CIA agent Nate Nash: “In my country, if you don’t matter to men in power, you don’t matter,” she notes darkly. “Is it so different in your country?”.
Touché. The issue of female empowerment isn’t limited to Russia, indeed it’s much more visible in Hollywood. At the moment it’s largely being fought through angry screeds on the internet – but Red Sparrow, at its most pointed, shows what might happen if films themselves focused on the sexual gauntlets women often have to endure. Dominika’s mission as a Sparrow is to use her body as a weapon (it’s unclear what the male cadets are doing there); “You must learn to love on command,” she’s told – not unlike actresses making their way up the ladder, in the days of the casting couch. Indeed, Lawrence herself may be said to be using her body as a weapon in this very movie, which is very sexualised (she does her first-ever nude scenes) – then again, as the Sparrows discover, when it’s done as a choice it’s empowering. It’s a question of being in control.
Lawrence is a star, and she’s getting better all the time: she seemed a bit sullen and one-note in the days of The Hunger Games – but she’s surprised us non-fans again and again (most notably in American Hustle and Mother!), and there’s no faulting the range of her performance here. Dominika is fragile when wounded by life, coolly expressive in chess-playing mode (Sparrows’ goal is to “seduce and manipulate”), bitter yet regal when dispatching a tormentor with a sardonic “Didn’t I do well?”. The first hour is strong in general, lush and crisply-edited as our heroine has her ballet career cut short by an accident, turning spy in order to support the inevitable invalid mother. We’re in Hunger Games territory – an enforced, state-run obstacle course which only the few survive – but seedier and sexier. Even the preposterous stuff is fun: Dominika learns that the ballet accident was no accident, so she hobbles along on her broken foot to where the culprit is canoodling with his girlfriend – the girl who replaced her – and beats them to a pulp with her metal walking-cane. No-one requires high art in a multiplex movie.
Red Sparrow is too long, alas. Our heroine’s “whore school” training, aiming to desensitise her to emotional snares (marshalled by Charlotte Rampling at her most imperious as ‘Matron’), makes for mind-games and manipulation – so much neater than brutish action – plus behind-the-scenes intrigue with middle-aged English actors playing Russian, well-spokenness being a sure sign of moral depravity. But the plot gets muddy, and the double-crosses are so frequent they lose their significance; by the last half-hour we’re clutching at straws, from a comical drunk act to an over-extended, over-sadistic torture scene which – like the drunk act – seems to belong in a different movie.
Cut down to a sharp 90 minutes about a good girl turned reluctant Mata Hari, this could’ve been a terrific film. Surface pleasures are nicely slippery, but what’s underneath is even richer. A woman making her way through a sexualised world is a timely issue; the role of Russia as the West sinks into decadence – lost in shopping, social media and racial squabbles, as someone puts it – is even more timely (the film is apparently set in the present day, despite the secret intel being delivered on what look like floppy disks). It doesn’t merely stand for totalitarianism, like in the days of the Cold War, more a Putin-style ruthlessness – “He acted emotionally,” note the Russkies, marking it down as a sign of weakness – which the film doesn’t really disavow. Dominika doesn’t end up embracing freedom and moving to New York, nor does CIA Nate save the day. Spoiler? Not really.
This is a cynical film for cynical times, pointedly lacking the cartoon exuberance of last year’s Atomic Blonde (another film with an Eastern European setting and unstoppable secret-agent heroine). Blonde was wish-fulfilment fantasy, a case of a woman knocking down men twice her size in hand-to-hand combat; Red Sparrow is a subtler project, a woman using her mind – and her body, or at least men’s perception of her body – to subvert the system, just as she might in the real world. It’s enjoyable, I just wish it were slightly better. Then again, we could say the same of the real world.
DIRECTED BY Francis Lawrence
STARRING Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts
US 2018 139 mins