The spy film ‘Red Sparrow’ flies in some twisty, some meandering directions
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthew Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons
“Red Sparrow” – After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Western Europeans and Americans - hoped for a less adversarial relationship with their/our former communist foe, Russia. Sure, Russia technically is a democracy, but a sketchy one, and after recent shenanigans in 2016, this aforementioned “former-enemy” certainly is not behaving like a nation wanting to cozy up as best friends with the West. Far from it.
As Bob Dylan preached in his 1964 song “With God on Our Side”:
“I’ve learned to hate the Russians, all through my whole life. If another war starts, it’s them we must fight. To hate them and fear them, to run and to hide. And accept it all bravely with God on my side.”
In 2018, hating and fearing Russians are probably not necessary prerequisites for U.S. citizens, but with a different kind of war hitting our cyber-doorstep, developing healthy skepticism and raising our guards seem like prudent judgments, don’t you think?
In “Red Sparrow” - director Francis Lawrence’s spy vs. spy film – CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) needs to develop healthy skepticism with (and raise his guard against) Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). She is a Russian spy. Actually, Dominika is a Sparrow, a siren who possesses both deadly intentions and powers of seduction.
Nash blew his cover trying to protect a Russian mole, and Dominika needs to discover this person’s identity for Mother Russia and another relative, her real-life uncle, SVR Deputy Director Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts). Nash and Dominika duel – but also cooperate - in a battle of wits and sexual tension in various spots like Budapest and Vienna. Although the picture looks fantastic (as it shows off some gorgeous (and moody) indoor venues that leap off the screen), carries an intriguing premise and Lawrence takes some risky chances, the film’s more introspective focus and sluggish pacing may leave audiences with lukewarm feelings rather than its intended red hot and icy cold endgame responses.
Lawrence works hard and steps out of her comfort zone throughout the picture, to her character’s intended detriment. Justin Haythe’s script – several times - leaves Dominika and us very uncomfortable, especially during Sparrow training when her lead instructor, Matron (Charlotte Rampling), delivers emotionless, stony demands that attempt to strip our heroine’s humanity and her clothes. Incidentally, Rampling is perfectly cast as Matron, whose character proudly carries decades of authoritarian, behind-the-Iron Curtain rhetoric like a second skin, graying out her pigment and erasing every grain of humor or joy from her being. Rampling’s accent may not always ring true-Soviet, but Matron’s voice usually does not rise louder than a polite and poisonous conversational tone, making every uttered syllable a potentially harmful one. Dominika’s anxious exchanges with Matron, her uncle and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) are the best moments in the movie, as these focused players debate protocol and allegiance, with the mission and associated Russian prominence being the only two motivating factors in every decision.
Well, except for Dominika. She is new to this cloak-and-dagger routine, and the movie’s fulcrum rests upon her ultimate loyalty or betrayal to the State. The will-she or won’t-she thread successfully harnesses our attention, but Edgerton and Lawrence do not capture enough on-screen sparks, and the film does not help itself with long – and sometimes mundane - stretches between a few visceral, violent sequences.
“Red Sparrow” feels like a “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)/“Mission Impossible” (1996) hybrid but with its own odd beats, including a couple strange choices. For instance, one character suffers a horrific leg injury and sports a cane early on in the movie, but then - suddenly - is free of the aforementioned aide and appears to walk perfectly fine, which makes one wonder when he or she squeezed in the needed hours of physical therapy. Second, during a specific operation, Dominika transfers data from a PC to a series of 3.5 inch disks, but wasn’t this technology last seen in the late 1990s? Everything else in the picture looks like 2018, except for the absence of a simple thumb drive.
Oh well, maybe the movie is set in 1996, but who knows. Love or hate Russia, perhaps all that this critic knows is: it’s an awfully complicated place, as evidenced by my comment to my friend, two seconds after the movie ended.
“Well, I am never moving to Russia.”
Admittedly, that is an icy cold response, amid some lukewarm feelings too.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.