After a career-ending injury, Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited by her uncle, intelligence officer Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking strikingly like Putin) into the Sparrows, a program designed to produce undercover agents who are experts at manipulating targets by any and all means, but with a specific focus on sexual seduction. However, when she’s tasked with seducing CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), Egorova has an opportunity to become something more than a tool of the state.
Anyone going into Red Sparrow thinking they’re going to get Marvel’s Black Widow with the serial numbers filed off is in for the shock of their lives – this is a film that does not do what it says on the tin. Far from another icy action-girl thriller on the La Femme Nikita – Atomic Blonde spectrum, Red Sparrow is an altogether more thoughtful, more challenging, more perverse affair. Working from the novel of the same name by veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews, director Francis Lawrence (75% of the Hunger Games series) and screenwriter Justin Haythes (Revolutionary Road, A Cure for Wellness) have crafted something that feels like it owes more to peak period Paul Verhoeven than to Alias.
“Sex is a weapon” is a cliché, but Red Sparrow’s chief strength is it ruminates on what that actually means, and while there’s no escaping a certain amount of titillation here – if you want to see JLaw naked, here’s your shot – the clinical approach to the mechanics of sex and seduction, particularly in the regimented training installation Dominika attends after she is recruited, elide away the sex appeal for all but those possessed of the most specific tastes.
In the Bond series, 007’s regular romps with various beauties were framed as a perk of the job, or a result of the protagonist’s raging satyrism at worst – never is the idea that dedicating one’s life to Queen and Country might mean more than just killing and/or dying. In Red Sparrow, however, that’s the whole point. Dominika is reminded time and time again that she is both a product of and a possession of the state, to be used in any way the nation’s security apparatus sees fit, and her own desires – sexual, moral, personal, political – are absolutely moot. Under the tutelage of the Matron (Charlotte Rampling, and it’s no accident that the star of The Night Porter is here), Dominika is taught to subsume her own self in order to feign attraction to anyone – and to do anything. “The body can be tricked”, she is told, as fellow Sparrows attempt to copulate in front of their attentive, bored classmates.
With her entire perceptible being dedicated to the service of Mother Russia, Dominika is advised by her disabled mother (our heroine’s initial motivation is to keep her out of a hellish-sounding state hospital) advises her to keep one small part of herself in reserve; a tiny piece of a private self. What that piece is, though, we as the audience are never really sure – in this world of paranoia, hidden agendas, sedition and secrets, truth is the most valuable commodity of all. Portraying a character whose inner being is almost entirely obfuscated is a tricky task – defaulting to boring robotic stillness is an ever-present risk – but Lawrence carries it off with studied subtlety, allowing us to see minute signs of her inner conflict and hesitation as she navigates the unforgiving hidden world she has been thrust into.
It’s a different kind of feminine strength on display, and one we’re not used to seeing on screen lately. Red Sparrow is not a fantasy of smashing the footsoldiers of patriarchy or being tough enough or being brutal enough to compete pound for pound with male aggressors, as in Atomic Blonde or Fury Road – not that those narratives aren’t vital. Rather, this film is about using the available tools and, importantly, operating clandestinely within the existing power structures in order to survive. Wonder Woman might be able to storm across No Man’s Land in a glorious, fist-pumping display of heroism (heroinism?), but if Dominika tries to muscle through her problems, she gets a bullet to the back of the head. It’s going to be interesting to see how audiences react to this in the current cultural climate.
Director Francis Lawrence does career-best work here. It sounds like a back-handed compliment, but there’s nothing in his back catalogue that suggests a capability for the work at hand: icy, controlled, provocative, and at times deliberately problematic. There’s also an admirable lack of patriotism; Edgerton and his CIA colleagues are sneered at by their Russian counterparts, who mock their lack of stoic professionalism – an unusual stance in an American spy thriller, even though we are in the end more or less encouraged to preference American ideology over Russian. Lawrence’s approach to both sex and violence in the film is decidedly European, and you can all but picture him in the editing suite slicing single frame after single frame in order to satiate the American censor’s demand for coyness.
Speaking of violence, there is surprisingly little, but when it does erupt it’s with a horrifying starkness and suddenness that refuses to let us forget that these are horrible things happening to real (in the context of the film) human bodies. It hurts; garotting is slow murder, knives, slice and pierce but do not kill with cinematic quickness, and a couple of torture scenes will linger in the memory – although it’s interesting to note that while the film is happy to have Edgerton tied to a chair for an extended session of punishment, the scene cuts away when it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s turn, although possibly not quickly enough for some.
A lot of people are going to be disappointed with Red Sparrow – it has been horribly mis-marketed – and a lot of pundits are going to be scandalised – you can see the furious ill-conceived thinkpieces brewing on the horizon already like gathering thunderheads. It’s not a perfect film – the middle stretch gets a bit lost in its own obscure plot machinations, and the film’s refusal to lay out exactly what the main character’s end goal is will frustrate some. It is, however, astute, provocative, fearless, deliberately perverse and thematically complex. The audience it does find is going to love it – and, perfectly, the cold and controlled Red Sparrow will not love them back.