This 2018 American spy thriller, directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, stars Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons.
Following a career-ending injury, former Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is offered a new life and a new place in society to help both her country and continue to care for her sick mother. Her uncle Ivan (Schoenaerts) sends her to train with Russian intelligence to become a ‘Sparrow’ – a covert spy.
Ivan is working alongside General Korchnoi (Irons) and Colonel Zacharov (Hinds) to observe known CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton) who is working with a mole in the Russian government. It is Nash who Dominika, fully trained, is assigned to in order to gain his trust and find the mole.
But Nash feels Dominika wasn’t born to serve the state – he offers her a chance to act as a double agent and help the CIA bring down a traitor in their own agency and end corruption within the Russian government. The fate of nations rests on just who Dominika will pledge her allegiance to…
With a title akin to that of a John Le Carré novel and evoking such celluloid thrillers such as ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ or, most recently, ‘Atomic Blonde’, this espionage thriller doesn’t attempt to re-write the genre, but it does attempt to set it out of the usual template we are used to and on the whole it works because of it.
Jennifer Lawrence only appears on my radar thanks to the ‘X-Men’ universe and her role as shape-shifter Mystique. I’ve never seen ‘Hunger Games’ and a few of her other roles have cropped up, but don’t linger in my conscious for long after the credits roll. For the first time, I think she has nailed a role for mature audiences and gives a pretty good stab at things. From the ballet which she deftly carries out, to the basic Hollywood-Russian accent (could be worse) and the way she handles herself with quiet confidence and fragile emotion, Lawrence thankfully let me forget her otherwise annoyingly brattish, egotistical and otherwise simply self-centred attitude off camera to invest in her mature Dominika, a world away from American Lawrence, for these 2 hours.
Sharing the spotlight is the poor man’s (or some now say rich man’s) Jeremy Renner in the guise of Joel Edgerton. The man can act just fine, and he constantly gives himself to the material on offer to pull out a good performance. Here his CIA agent Nate Nash goes up against both Russian and American governments to be the spy we can at least have faith in fighting the good fight. He’s likeable and keeps things moving with his urgency and determination to break down an unbreakable Sparrow, which leaves his character in a good position as you always question if he’s going to make it to the end credits without being double-crossed or killed.
The supporting cast also nail their performances and carry over the accents that Hollywood teaches them for Russian officials and agents. Jeremy Irons is at his brooding, menacing best here but still somehow feels under-used, which is a shame because his role could be that of Simon Gruber 20 years later. Matthias Schoenaerts has an aura about him you feel comfortable yet uneasy about during his screen time which is exactly what is needed, and Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, and Joely Richardson offer their veteran talent to flesh out a cast who you can really get behind and see their pieces in the puzzle.
Story-wise, the film (from the novel remember) doesn’t try to give us anything too complex or ground-breaking which is what I want in these things. I want something that has worked for years and years, just presented in a fresh way. It’s these factors that lifted ‘Red Sparrow’ into something much more enjoyable than if it had been a carbon-copy of what we’ve seen before where even the cast couldn’t have elevated things with their tools.
The opening minutes are some of the most well shot and scored moments I’ve seen recently. Simple, but effective. The haunting and powerful music by James Newton Howard and cinematography by Jo Willems introduces us without the need for dialogue to paint a post-Cold War Russia and America, present-day countries that are rife with corruption and covert counter intelligence, more relevant than ever in our President Trump era.
The look and sound of ‘Red Sparrow’ is both beautiful and grim at the same time. The elegance and pride bleed off the screen when we see the glory of Mother Russia, but in a heartbeat turns to a dark and working-class world were nothing can guarantee your safety in the eyes of spies. Moscow, London, and Budapest are stunning cities and the perfect backdrop to the staged spy game, and nothing is really held back by director Francis Lawrence. It’s a mature film for mature audiences; it doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality, yet is never gratuitous. There is nothing we don’t see, hear or feel that isn’t important to our characters and story, and plenty of moments had me wincing and grimacing in my seat. And it was brilliant. Just the reaction I wanted from a film shying away from watering down content for young audiences.
And as for the idea of exploitation of women, I for one found the sexual slant of this story tasteful and powerful and respectful to both Jennifer Lawrence in her portrayal and that of women in general. With a tidal wave sweeping through Hollywood about equality, the idea of using one’s body as a weapon initially seems to U-turn the movement, but actually, it is a raw and natural thing for these hard-edged and brutal spies to do. The mind and body is a weapon, and we are reminded that through brilliant training sequences from the delicious 007 Rosa Klebb-esque Charlotte Rampling.
The male targets come across as single-minded and stupid and blind to everything around them when presented with a suggestive glimpse of flesh or wandering hand. Lawrence plays it perfectly and never looks or feels exploited, at least in my opinion. It’s a harsh, brutal world of covert intelligence set in a totally different world than the West understands, and so in that respect, it makes perfect sense and easily throws us out of our comfort zone.
It’s these elements that drag it above standard American-based thrillers. While the story sags a little in the middle, easily allowing us to shave a good 10 minutes off the talky-talky moments, the flow is bookended with tight sequences that offer thrills, tension and bloody action without ever having to feel they need to resort to loud, physics-defying shoot-outs, car chases or dumb action sequences.
It’s a grounded and down to earth film with a climax you may or may not see coming as the pieces fall into place, but it’s done in a neat way that you’ll be happy with if you’ve enjoyed the journey through the beauty and danger of Capitalist West v Communist East.
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker