Although Red Sparrow advertises itself as a thriller about a Russian agent trained in the art of seduction, the truth is less glamorous.
Jennifer Lawrence — in a role that comes with a bad haircut and bad accent (“a gluss uv woodka, plizz”) — plays Dominika, who washes out as a ballerina and is sent by authorities to a drab institution in the snowy Russian hinterlands to learn how to be the spy who’ll shag you.
For some reason, her training means that she has to dress like a repressed nanny, with orthopedic shoes (Putin on the ritz, she ain’t). She also gets hit a lot, is ordered by Charlotte Rampling to have sex with soldiers, and to watch other people endure the same mistreatment. A classmate is ordered to engage in a sex act with a “degenerate,” although I had a hard time telling the degenerates from the instructors, the students, and the entire Russian intelligence apparatus (roles for Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Matthias Schoenaerts, contributing to the movie’s inscrutable accent regime).
Later, Dominika is sexually assaulted in a shower, an incident that nearly gets her expelled.
In sum, she is degraded, abused, and humiliated in ways that are insistently and tactlessly sexualized. The place is called Sparrow School, but I think a more appropriate name would be The Harvey Weinstein Academy for Russian Escorts.
Dominika graduates in record time, and gets her first assignment: Shack up with a CIA agent named Nathaniel (Joel Edgerton), who is hanging out in Budapest waiting for the emergence of a Russian mole, whose identity Dominika is sent to discover.
Does she really care for Nathaniel, and vice versa?
Are they really just using each other to further national interests?
The questions are purely academic, as the chemistry between Edgerton and Lawrence is flat. Red Sparrow was shot on location in Hungary, in winter, and their scenes together feature about as much heat.
The movie’s distinguishing feature is its inclination to lurid violence. Every so often, a depraved Russian hit man shows up to murder and torture one of the characters, mostly to allow director Francis Lawrence to show yet another naked and brutalized woman splayed on a shower floor, or in a bathtub red with blood.
Somehow, all of these bloody footprints are meant to mark a trail leading to female empowerment. Crafty Dominika works to game this world of violent men and bends them to her will — shades of Atomic Blonde.
Isn’t there is a better way to dramatize female willpower?
I think so. When it comes to pluck, I prefer Lady Bird to Red Sparrow.
Directed by Frances Lawrence. With Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds and Matthias Schoenaerts. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 19 mins.
Parents guide: R (sex, violence)
- Playing at: Area theaters