Anchored by Jennifer Lawrence's performance, Red Sparrow is a slow-burn spy/seductress thriller that's shiny on the surface, yet lacking in depth.
Adapted from the book by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow is a modern espionage flick that reunites Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence with her The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay - Part 1 & 2 director Francis Lawrence. Matthew sold the movie rights to his intriguing source material before it had even been published, with Jennifer Lawrence's mother! director Darren Aronofsky and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo duo David Fincher and Rooney Mara among those who circled the project during pre-production. While the caliber of talent that expressed interest in adapting Red Sparrow is a testament to the narrative richness of Matthew's novel, the final film version is more an exercise in style over substance. Anchored by Jennifer Lawrence's performance, Red Sparrow is a slow-burn spy/seductress thriller that's shiny on the surface, yet lacking in depth.
Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow as Dominika Egorova, a celebrated Russian ballerina whose career is cut tragically short when she suffers a terrible injury during a performance. Facing an uncertain future and determined to continue providing care for her sickly mother Nina (Joely Richardson), Dominika is manipulated by her shady uncle Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) - the First Deputy Director of the SVR - into performing a dubious task... one that leads to a person being murdered, with Dominika the only witness to the Russian government's secret crime.
Realizing that she has no real choice in the matter, Dominika is then forced by her uncle into attending Sparrow School: a Russian intelligence program that trains young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons of seduction. When it turns out that Dominika has a talent for this dangerous line of work, she is recruited by the government to carry out a top priority mission: to make contact with and seduce a CIA operative named Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), in order to manipulate him into revealing the identity of his informant within the Russian secret service. However, in this line of work, everyone has secrets and Dominika comes to realize that she must always stay one step ahead, if she wants to make it out of this operation alive.
Like Matthew's original novel, Red Sparrow combines a comparatively realistic portrayal of modern intelligence agency procedures and techniques (informed by Matthew's real life experience working for the CIA) with a pulpier spy/femme fatale narrative full of dramatic twists and enigmatic characters who may or may not have ulterior agendas. Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, A Cure for Wellness) similarly carryover the Red Sparrow book's shifts in point of view to the big screen, frequently cutting back and forth between scenes with Dominika and conversations among top-ranking members of either the CIA or SVR. The film by and large succeeds in creating tension and suspense through this filmmaking approach, in particular when it comes to juxtaposing Dominika's storyline with the plot thread involving Nathaniel and his own spy games.
While Red Sparrow further manages to streamline Matthew's dense source material into more of a cinematic three-act narrative, it ends up sacrificing much of its substance in the process. The film only skims the surface when it comes to exploring the political implications of its story (specifically, the state of relations between the former Soviet Union and the U.S.), as well as the questions that it raises about how sexual attraction and gender influence the power dynamics between people of different social ranking. Red Sparrow delves fairly deep into the power struggle between Dominkia and her uncle Ivan, but her relationships with the movie's other players - like Nathaniel, her mother, and especially the Sparrow School Matron (Charlotte Rampling) - come off feeling half-baked in the end and fail to leave much of an emotional impact.
Jennifer Lawrence, for her part, delivers another fine performance as the "Red Sparrow" herself, making it easier to accept how the character applies her determination and discipline as a dancer to becoming an effective secret agent and seductress, instead. Red Sparrow is really the former Katniss Everdeen's show more than anyone else's, though the rest of the supporting cast do a good job with the thin material they are handed. Further lending the film an air of prestige are actors like Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons and character actor Ciarán Hinds (who, yes, are technically Justice League costars), as do Richardson, Rampling, and Mary-Louise Parker in their own supporting roles. As classy as that ensemble reads on paper though, only Schoenaerts gets a meaty role to dig into as Dominika's sinister relative.
Its shortcomings in story and character development aside though, Red Sparrow is a handsome movie purely from an aesthetic perspective. Reuniting with his Hunger Games cinematographer Jo Willems, Francis Lawrence draws from a cold yet striking color palette to bring the film's world of spies, covert operatives, and assassins to life, creating a richly austere sense of atmosphere in the process. Trish Summerville's equally chilly, yet lovely costumes are sometimes a bit too reminiscent of the outfits that she designed for Catching Fire's dystopian setting, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy production designer Maria Djurkovic aptly captures the feel of a Cold War thriller throwback with her contributions here. Keeping that in mind: Red Sparrow does look and feel a bit like "David Fincher-lite" overall, leaving one to wonder what Fincher and Mara would have made of the project, had they signed on instead of the Lawrences (all the more so when you consider the thematic similarities between Red Sparrow and Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo especially).
Fox originally had Red Sparrow scheduled to open in theaters last November, but the film's delay was a smart move. The film is a perfectly solid dramatic thriller for adults, but wouldn't have been an awards season contender and might have gotten lost in the shuffle, had it been forced to compete alongside the stronger genre movies that came out last fall. Red Sparrow isn't one of Jennifer Lawrence's best starring vehicles, but it's a good rebound for the Oscar-winner after her films likes Joy, Passengers, and even the divisive mother! failed to leave much of an impression on the pop culture zeitgeist. The movie isn't a must-see in theaters, but those who are intrigued by the film's premise and/or have enjoyed Francis Lawrence's previous non-Hunger Games genre features (a la Constantine, I Am Legend) may want to give "Jennifer Lawrence's Black Widow movie" a shot.
Red Sparrow is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 139 minutes long and is rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.
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