With Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and now Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence is showing an admirable willingness to put herself through the wringer to add star power to projects that might otherwise have proved impossible to get through the studio system. However, where Mother! was a wildly exciting, yet philosophical, work of gonzo lunacy, Red Sparrow is unfortunately a far less remarkable film, notable mostly for a nasty streak a mile wide. The premise ‘Jennifer Lawrence sexy ballerina spy adventure’ should have made for something hugely entertaining, but Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence’s film instead gets too bogged down in torture, rapes, and a drab grey colour palette to be enjoyable.
That being said, the first 10 minutes are terrific. Efficient visual storytelling is matched by an expertly choreographed ballet piece, a thrilling information hand-off gone wrong, and some grotesque body horror, setting a high bar that the rest of the film cannot come close to reaching. With a convoluted plot and thinly motivated characters, it becomes hard to care about anything that’s happening as Bolshoi ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) gets recruited into Sparrow School – a military program that trains honeytrap agents – and gets caught between Russian and American national interests.
Another element that elevates this opening is that it is wordless. Most of the dialogue is painfully clichéd – two different characters say ‘we make our own fate’ within the span of about eight minutes – and the ‘Russian’ cast has to deliver their lines in a heavy, distracting accent. Even Lawrence, who commits full bore to the role, can’t shake the ridiculousness of this choice, and so it’s Joel Edgerton who ends up the star performance as CIA man Nate Nash, who inevitably falls in love with Dominika. Matthias Schoenarts – in full Putin mode – is obviously having fun as Dominika’s creepy intelligence officer uncle, as is Mary Louise Parker in a brief role as a drunken US diplomat, but most of Red Sparrow takes itself far too seriously.
Not every spy thriller has to be a silly caper, of course, but Justin Haythe’s script (based on the book by Jason Matthews) doesn’t have the punch to justify its po-face. The torture scenes are graphic and viscerally effective in the moment, particularly when a knife loving Russian agent takes a skin-grafting blade to his victims, but we never truly fear for the characters. Alongside the gore, Red Sparrow earns its higher age rating with already much-publicised nudity that its star has praised as ‘empowering’. In practice, Lawrence’s camera feels pervy and gratuitous, with little of the cheeky flair or imagination displayed in much more explicit films like The Handmaiden.
At nearly two and a half hours, it’s too long, with not enough intrigue, entertainment, or epic sweep (every wintry location looks pretty much the same) to keep you engaged for the full runtime. That Lawrence chooses to end the film with two different scenes of thunderous applause is also deeply annoying, displaying an unearned confidence that makes all the mediocrity that comes before it feel more like an insult than an accident.