‘Red Sparrow’ Review

RED SPARROW (8 out of 10) Directed by Frances Lawrence; Written by Justin Haythe; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Irons ; Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity; Running time 139 minutes; In wide release March 2, 2018. 

When I left the theater after seeing Red Sparrow, I commented that it resembled a cross between Atomic Blonde and Bridge of Spies. Now, I didn’t mean that it even approached the greatness of Spielberg (nothing does!) by mentioning his film, but Red Sparrow certainly has a Cold War feel, with a lot of spies as well as an ass-kicking female protagonist. 

Francis Lawrence, the director of the final three Hunger Games films, once again teams up with Jennifer Lawrence. This time, it’s to adapt former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ novel of the same name. I had a brief stint as an extra on Catching Fire, and saw firsthand how well the two Lawrences worked together, so it came as no surprise they teamed up again.

But this is no YA book adaptation. It’s strictly for grown-ups and not for those sensitive to sexual violence or torture. And though there’s enough of both in the film, it never felt gratuitous. It served as illustration: the world is cruel. People are out to get you. Secrets can be bought and sold, and power is everything.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character is Dominika, a ballerina in the Bolshoi who suffers a career-ending injury and seeks to support her ill mother. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) swoops in to save the day. But first, quid pro quo Clarice. He asks Dominika to meet a man who had admired her as a ballerina, but the evening ends in terror for her, and she realizes she has made a deal with the devil.

She is enlisted in the femme fatale version of Hogwarts (Sparrow School), where she learns to bewitch and beguile and do whatever it takes to complete a mission. Country first. Ego second. Charlotte Rampling is the stern headmistress whose dour, strict demeanor makes her the equivalent of a Russian Dolores Umbridge.

Though I’m not quite sold on Lawrence’s accent (and, really, it’s not like I’m an expert in Russian accents), her commitment to her character is obvious. She easily slides from one role to another: ballerina, spy, seductress, student, lover, and works through some very intense emotional scenes.  

In fact, the entire cast from American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and Jeremy Irons (playing a rather nuanced character compared to some of his scene-chewing roles) bring their all to the film. And Mary-Louise Parker is hilarious in her brief appearance. 

Red Sparrow isn’t a film that will hit the right note with all audiences, but it’s something different among the mega blockbusters and franchises, and it does have a strong female lead. As someone who had her dream as a dancer unfairly destroyed, she doesn’t wallow in self-pity. And she doesn’t sit idly by. She acts. And though she’s mistreated and brutalized, she doesn’t let it stop her. She’s smart and savvy, and as her uncle says, always one step ahead.