‘Red Sparrow’ Indulges in the Dark Side of Sex

Red Sparrow
Francis Lawrence
20th Century Fox
02 Mar 2018

No one will ever mistake Red Sparrow for a classic espionage thriller. The finalé is obvious, the characters are thin, and it’s at least 15 minutes too long. What ultimately makes Francis Lawrence’s twisted tale of sexual gamesmanship worthwhile is the fearlessness of its leading lady and its uncanny ability to feel both cold and erotic at the same time.

There’s almost something admirable about the ruthless sexuality of Red Sparrow. Despite the presence of a strong female lead character, this isn’t a film concerned with proving that women can best men at their own game. The Atomic Blonde isn’t going to burst into the room and outpunch the boys in long, choreographed duels. No, this is film about sexual manipulation; violence against the soul rather than broken bones and contusions.

“Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece and they will tell you anything.”

It’s not the sort of advice you’d hear in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, but it’s no less useful to the students at the Sparrow School. You see, these are beautiful young Russian spies charged with uncovering precious secrets, not by disarming their marks, but by de-pantsing them. It’s a delightfully lurid premise that feels ripped from the fevered dreams of a 14-year-old boy, or the fanciful ramblings from the forum of some men’s magazine.

Prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) arrives at the school with shattered dreams and a shattered leg. Actually, the leg shattering happens first — her male partner does a pirouette right onto her freaking leg — and the shattered dreams quickly follow. With unpaid bills mounting and a sick mother who needs medical insurance, Dominika accepts a ‘generous’ job offer from Russian Deputy Director Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be her uncle. Yes, nepotism is still alive and well, though it doesn’t usually involve this much rape and throat slitting.

Director Francis Lawrence (veteran of several The Hunger Games features, including Mockingjay – Part 1, 2014 and Mockingjay – Part 2, 2015) adapts the first half of Jason Matthews’ successful spy novel for maximum impact. This includes a beautifully edited sequence that intercuts Dominika’s grizzly ballet mishap with a botched meeting of spies in Gorky Park. The spies are a CIA operative named Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his mole inside the Russian government, codenamed “Marble”. It’s a bravura sequence that portends Dominika’s fall from the spotlight into the shadowy murk of espionage.

This is followed by the film’s undeniable highlight; Dominika’s training at the Sparrow School. Here, Jennifer Lawrence bears all for the camera, giving us the ‘Full Monty’ both physically and psychologically. It’s unlikely that Lawrence and her acting comrades stripped down to their naughty bits in a freezing warehouse, but the filmmakers keep everything suitably cold and dispassionate.

Recruits are classily berated by Headmistress Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who urges them to ditch their “sentimental morality” in favor of “love on command”. Rampling is masterful in this role, oozing menace and sexual ruthlessness as she guides her students through a litany of unsavory scenarios.

“For the deception to be complete, you must hold nothing back,” she commands. This includes dealing with sexual predators like pedophiles and domestic abusers with a stomach-churning modicum of respect. One is reminded of Jeanne Moreau’s sinful tutor from Besson’s La Femme Nikita, the film to which Red Sparrow hews most closely.

After Dominika graduates from “whore school” (as it’s affectionately known in the intelligence community), things become decidedly more pedestrian. Besides for some genuinely unsettling torture scenes, one involving an especially close shave on a victims back, there’s not much action to keep you engaged. There are superficial attempts to establish a relationship between Dominika and the enterprising (but goodhearted) Nash, but there isn’t enough room for love in a story cluttered with seemingly mandatory plot points.

More interesting is the complicated relationship between uncle Vanya and Dominika, which brims with an uncomfortable sexual tension more befitting the perversity of Red Sparrow. The double-crosses and twists may be unconvincing throughout, but there’s nothing half-hearted about the sexual elements in Lawrence’s story. Flesh and blood co-mingle with consistently unsettling results that still manage to be erotic. It’s safe to say you’ll probably need a shower, cold or otherwise, after watching Red Sparrow.

Most of the film’s success can be attributed to Jennifer Lawrence’s dynamic performance (arguably her best to date) and the lush cinematography of Jo Willems. Willems magnificently captures the sparse beauty of Eastern Europe (filming mostly in Hungary and Austria), using landscapes of blinding white to suffocate these tiny characters. Lawrence needs a big performance to counterbalance the pervading gloom and she delivers masterfully. Her face and body are electric with possibilities; creating tension and drama within a plot that can resolve itself in only one way.

The shallow characters and meandering plot of Red Sparrow will probably leave fans of convoluted spy thrillers largely unsatisfied. Fans of Matthews’ novel, too, will lament the omission of several quirky details, such as Dominika’s perception and mastery of human emotion through color. If you’re looking for something edgier and more overtly sexualized, however, this diversion will do nicely. It’s a brutal riff on sexual manipulation that delights in the little deaths that accrue in the name of trust and honesty.

RATING 6 / 10