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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Red Sparrow

Almost definitely not the film you've been advertised... and it's all the better for it.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

After an accident brings her dancing career to a sudden end, Dominika Egorova is left with no money, no prospects and a mother to support. When her uncle, a powerful man in the Russian government, comes to her with an offer, she reluctantly accepts but what should have been a simple one-shot mission goes horribly wrong and she soon finds herself recruited to the infamous “Sparrow School”, which trains young people to use their sexuality against the State's enemies.

What we thought

If there was any doubt that the Cold War is back, Red Sparrow is the film to convince you that the the Russians are once again the ultimate villains of freedom and the liberal ideals on which most of the West rests. Obviously, this isn't about communism any more and, unlike most classic Cold War movies, this is less about all Russians being Evil but about the sins of the Russian government against not only the West but about what it does to its own people. Still, it's been a while since Russia has been so explicitly the Big Bad in a contemporary spy thriller and, despite a lack of any mentions of Vladimir Putin by name, it's impossible to see this film as anything but a reflection of the current state of Russian/ Western affairs as told through what is basically a twist on an old fashioned Cold War spy thriller.

Jennifer Lawrence follows up her powerhouse performance in Darren Aronofsky's highly divisive mother! with a performance here that is as far away from the brittle “housewife” of that film as it is from her loveable real-life persona. Her Dominika is a mix of steely resolve with barely contained anger and vulnerability and Lawrence is, aside for a truly terrible Russian accent, as excellent as ever. Without being able to rely on her usual down-to-earth likeability and boisterous sense of humour, she relies entirely on her considerable screen presence and underrated ability to capture her character's more subtle complexities – and the results are nothing less than stellar.

Red Sparrow's mix of thriller tropes, slow-burning pace and at times quite shocking brutality could easily have been a recipe for unmitigated disaster but Lawrence holds everything together, while simultaneously creating an incredibly compelling character that feels as far removed from the usual spy cliché as possible. No doubt part of this is because of the fact that, as written by screenwriter Justin Haythe, working off the novel by Jason Matthews, she is nothing like the sort of characters that are usually central to this sort of film but without Lawrence's steadying presence, she could easily have been lost among the twisty plotting, not to mention the film's heightened mix of sexuality and violence.

And, make no mistake, though Jennifer Lawrence may be once again working with her Hunger Games director, Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow is no young adult fantasy – not even one as grim as the Hunger Games. It takes a lot for a film released in this country to earn an 18 rating but Red Sparrow earns its adult rating easily and quite early on. It's a film about using sexuality as a weapon in the often ruthless game of international espionage and, though it's disappointing to see the film occasionally going for the usual espionage-thriller trappings, it mostly doesn't flinch at showing just how distasteful, dangerous and soul-destroying such business can't help but be.

This very much isn't James Bond, in other words, but it isn't Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy either. Red Sparrow certainly has no interest in the more boring and bureaucratic aspects of the spy game but however fantastical some of its plot may be and how elevated its drama, there's something impressive about its refusal to hide from the more horrible realities of what a county would go through to get the better of its enemies – especially one as troubling as Putin's Russia. And, make no mistake, though Francis Lawrence often makes it feel like his film is set decades ago, there are more than enough signs to point to it being set in the present day. It's actually a really impressive trick and one of the many things that sets this film apart from the pack.

All this said, though, Red Sparrow is certainly not a film without its flaws and, more than that, even with its top-drawer cast (Jennifer Lawrence is far from the only beloved actor to turn in an impressive performance here – though she's also not the only one to struggle with holding down that Russian accent), assured direction, fine attention to detail and general timeliness, it's not an easy film to blindly recommend to general audiences. It's slow, it's long and it's unflinching with its violence, its sexuality and the way it mixes the two.

Despite its mainstream marketing, Red Sparrow is more or less an arthouse film and is all but guaranteed to turn off anyone simply looking for an entertaining spy flick. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by how gripping I found it, how audacious it was at times and how, days later, it continues to linger with me. Between this and mother!, though, I could do with something lighter from Ms. Lawrence; something that makes rather better use of her prodigious comedic talents, perhaps?




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