From the opening act, Red Sparrow marks itself as a film bathed in studio boardroom ambition. A spy, a ballerina, a cruel twist of fate and an elegance that transcends the bloody reality of the Russian secret service. Lisbeth Salander meets James Bond meets Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It should be a producer’s dream. And yet Francis Lawrence‘s thriller is left out in the cold on all fronts. It is possible that spycraft on screen has never been as belligerent or exploitative, but do not mistake that description for inventiveness, less so a recommendation. With Jennifer Lawrence‘s faltering accent this is yet another limp stereotype fired across the bow in the latest fictional installment of the US-Russia rivalry.
Lawrence plays Dominika who in the opening moments is living out her dream as the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre. It’s a coveted position she has fought and bled for, but it only takes a shriek and a broken leg and her future in ballet is kaput. Once special, now forgotten, she reverts to a life caring for her ill mother, whose health care Dominika now fears she won’t be able to sustain. Her uncle in the secret service (Matthias Schoenaerts) believes he has an answer, though his niece won’t like it.
With her ballet experience Dominika presents as an ideal candidate for the Sparrow School, a government training facility not for the faint-hearted or the remotely sane. Its recruits are schooled in the arts of manipulation, seduction and oh so much sadism, and Dominika is a natural. A rookie maybe, but it isn’t long before she has ticked all the boxes for her uncle to send her on the mission he had in mind. The target is a US agent called Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). The prize is the identity of the mole inside the Russian intelligence services.
Red Sparrow promises big on mood and intrigue but rarely delivers enough substance to justify the horror we are subjected to in the process. It’s a dazzling production to look at, spare in palate but striking in its contrasts, from the garish grandeur of Russian halls of power to the gloom of an Eastern European winter. Even so, rarely does Jennifer Lawrence look at home, and you’d be forgiven for thinking her part had been purposely underwritten to avoid her having to demonstrate a faux Russian accent for more than a few words at a time. This is not a small flaw.
It is a brave role in some respects. Certainly we have never seen as much of Lawrence on screen in a physical sense, but a revealing performance it isn’t. In fact it is by far her most shallow to date – cold, distant and a far cry from the bold, simmering performances that brought her to the limelight. It seems unfair to single out Lawrence – Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds are all equally as unconvincing and two-dimensional – though the lack of nuance in the supporting ensemble places an awful lot of pressure on Jennifer’s ability to appear mysterious. This is not an easy illusion to maintain when you’ve cast the world’s most high-profile actress.
Such details should be minimal, but they do add a comical element to the seriousness that is implied in this uneven effort from writer Justin Haythe, something he offsets in a rather brutal manner. Where emotional engagement might help to raise the stakes for the audience, Haythe substitutes gratuitous torture for character development. Displayed in various forms, both psychological and physical, these methods are certainly instructive and convincing (I’d certainly never heard of a dermatome until now), but such scenes add nothing and are ultimately overblown.
You can see what they’re trying to do, stripping espionage of its gadgets back to an all-encompassing game of psychological manipulation. By building up Dominika’s pain threshold through systematic debasement, writer and director seek to bring maturity to a traditionally sensationalised genre and create a vengeful motivation for their heroine that is both genuine and deserved. Granted, credit is due to Haythe for crafting a surprisingly satisfying resolution, but this does not make what precedes it daring filmmaking. It’s exhibitionist and draws straight from the textbook of torture porn and it derails Red Sparrow’s ambitions.
Red Sparrow is in cinemas from 1st March through 20th Century Fox.