If you’re a Russian ballerina who has broken her leg, your sick mother is shivering in your hovel and your devilish Uncle Vanya says the solution to your money problems is to become a sex slave in the service of the government – well, what’s a girl to do? That’s how Jennifer Lawrence, as Dominika Egorova in Red Sparrow, finds herself in a very specialised institution of learning. Charlotte Rampling, as a teacher who asks to be called Matron, instructs the class in the art of spying through seduction. Maybe the uniform of drab grey suits and sensible shoes that men and women wear to Seduction 101 are meant to increase the level of difficulty. Who knows?
Red Sparrow sounds as if it has a foolproof recipe: sex, spies and Russia. But the only way to make sense of this thudding, clichéd would-be thriller is to think of it as an unintentional comedy. It is loaded with cartoonish Russian accents, borrowings from creaky Cold War movies and painfully unsexy sex, with a dash of excruciating torture thrown in.
The uncle really is called Vanya, the film’s first and last connection to Chekhov.
The film’s clumsiness is apparent from its first scenes, when Lawrence and her body double inelegantly dance at the Bolshoi Ballet. After an on-stage accident bashes Dominika’s leg and her career, her violent revenge displays a hidden rage. Yet she is inexplicably helpless when her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a deputy in the Russian intelligence agency, threatens poverty and no health care for Mama (Joely Richardson), coercing Dominika into her new profession. The uncle really is called Vanya, the film’s first and last connection to Chekhov.
Meanwhile, an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), has been running around Gorky Park. Protecting his highly-placed Russian source, he blows his own cover and is sent home in disgrace. Dominika is soon sent to Budapest to meet the reassigned Nash and to do her sparrow best to get him to reveal the name of his traitorous Russian mole.
A bucket of water poured over a woman’s head, as torture, unfortunately resembles Flashdance
“Do you tr-r-r-r-ust me?” Lawrence asks Edgerton, rolling her R’s through horrendous dialogue as she puts her classroom lessons to work. They supposedly fall into a torrid affair. Films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle leave no doubt about Lawrence’s talent and ability, just as Loving and The Gift do for Edgerton. But here she’s cute and he’s admirable. Those qualities don’t exactly suggest a spark, much less heat, whether or not the lust is faked for business reasons.
The screenplay, by Justin Haythe, is based on a bestselling novel by Jason Matthews, a former CIA operative. Whatever expertise they drew on, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, in the age of Vladimir Putin and computer hacks, could have made a Russian spy story so oblivious to current politics. Matron says that the Cold War is not over, just shattered into thousands of “dangerous pieces.” Instead of these new pieces, there is a subplot in which Mary-Louise Parker, as a Senator’s chief of staff, tries to sell the Russians a pile of discs – old-school computer discs – with classified information.
The director, Francis Lawrence, also made three of the Hunger Games movies. Little of that professionalism is evident in Red Sparrow, which roams from Budapest (where much of the film was shot) to Vienna. Ludicrous characters are placed in sumptuous backdrops, and are often filmed awkwardly. A torture scene involving a bucket of water poured over a woman’s head unfortunately resembles an image from Flashdance. The ending is intriguing and twisty, but not worth enduring the other two hours and 15 minutes of the two-hour and 19-minute film.
The movie plants the glimmer of a thought that Dominika is a shadow feminist taking charge of her own body and her fate, but that notion vanishes in light of the silliness and shallowness of the film that surrounds her.
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