The trailers for “Red Sparrow,” a new thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence, promise an action packed movie experience that could rest comfortably alongside the action-packed “Atomic Blonde.” But like its main character, all is not what it seems. This isn’t “Atomic Blonde: Electric Boogaloo,” it’s an austere, cold film, and not just in its bleak Russian backdrop.
Based on a novel by former Central Intelligence Agency operative Jason Matthews, it tells the story of Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) after a career ending injury forces her into early retirement. With a sick mother at home and an apartment paid for by the Bolshoi Ballet, her now former employer, she is in desperate need of money. “I can make sure your mother is looked after,” says her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who also happens to be the deputy director of the Service of the Russian Federation. “That you can stay in your apartment but only if you can be of use to the state. Do it for your mother.”
When she survives her first “job”—seducing a wealthy Russian tycoon—Uncle sends her to the Sparrow School, a facility where, “selected for their beauty, strength and ability,” candidates are trained to be, “weapons in a global struggle for power.” The syllabus includes courses on seduction and manipulation, exploiting weakness, how to love on command and trigger sexual desires. Most importantly, they are taught to harden themselves against the sentimental.
It’s a tough learning curve and the stakes are high. “If you cannot be of use to the State I will put a bullet through your head,” says the school’s sadistic headmistress (Charlotte Rampling). After a rough start Dominika dodges the bullet to become one of the Krushtov era program’s best students.
Her first assignment sees her sent to Budapest to seduce American operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and uncover the name of his Russian double agent working for the CIA.
“Red Sparrow” plays like a typical spy movie with less action and more kink. There’s barely a car chase, very few bullets are loosed and most of the violence happens off screen. Instead, director Francis Lawrence calibrates the violence for maximum shock effect. Ugly, skin-crawling torture scenes are hard to watch and the camera lingers on a particularly nasty throat cutting situation that manages to say more about the hardening of Dominika’s spirit than any lines of dialogue could.
Lawrence is in virtually every frame of the film, creating a portrait of a woman willing to do whatever it takes to survive. She wisely avoids doing a Boris and Natasha accent, favouring a convincing but mild Russian cadence that sounds more authentic than her more seasoned co-stars. I’m looking at you Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds. As Dominika she is indomitable, keeping us guessing where her allegiances lie until the very end.
By the end credits “Red Sparrow” feels overlong as the twists and turns pile up like empty vodka bottles outside the Kremlin bar. It is unsentimental; a hard-as-stone—although occasionally ludicrous—neo-Cold War thriller that goes heavy on the espionage before succumbing to the obvious, wrapping up the story with a neat bow. For a film that lives in the darkened corners of life outside the law it goes too far out of its way to illuminate the story’s inner workings, taking on the feel of a John le Carré reject.