- Bleak, depressing atmosphere adds to the film’s mature, engaging personality
- Some aspects don’t feel fully explored
- Lots of sex and violence (see that as good or bad depending on your own sensibilities…)
- Captivating plot that keeps us guessing
- Frequent fake Russian accents tend to get a bit irritating
- Decent performances all round, especially by Lawrence, continuing to demonstrate strong screen presence
- A competent, decent enough spy thriller – but nothing overly memorable
As I’ve often said, the ‘spy’ genre is only ever a sub-genre; a secondary genre describing the story told in either an action film or a thriller (the distinction often seen by whether they’re referred to as agents or spies). For this reason there are only really two types of spy films; some are like Bond films or Kingsman, others more like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Red Sparrow fits safely into the latter category, the sort of film that acts more as a warning as opposed to glamorising the life of a spy. With less reliance on action and style (but with plenty of sex and violence), it follows the trend with an intricate and clever plot that engages the audience. On the whole, Red Sparrow is successful, though not without its hiccups.
After an apparent accident during a performance, Russian prima-ballerina Dominika’s (Jennifer Lawrence) dreams and promising ballet career are crushed and end with a sudden blow. With no future and desperate to be able to give her crippled mother the treatment she needs, she accepts a small job from her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to swap phones with an important target without being noticed. This job does not go as expected and soon she finds herself recruited to ‘Sparrow School’, where she is taught by a cold Matron (Charlotte Rampling) to become a Sparrow – beautiful and seductive women, yet terrifyingly lethal and deadly spies. She soon finds herself on her first mission, targeting a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) and gaining his trust to steal information from him. But where do her allegiances really lie? Who can we trust? Only Dominika knows…
As is typical (and fundamentally important) with these ‘realistic’ spy movies, the whole film is very bleak and depressing; from the story and characters to the settings and cinematography. This feeling permeates Red Sparrow and the melancholic atmosphere works really well, confidently giving us an insight into the mind of a spy. However, sometimes it goes a little too far – the ‘Sparrow School’ section of the film, for example, was more disappointing. What could have been really exciting and interesting, instead seems more of an excuse for more of that nudity we’re promised in the parental guide. And there are plenty of scenes with sex and nudity and more than enough violence to amp up the bleak, horrific nature of a spy’s world – it’s certainly not a film for prudes. Fortunately though these scenes aren’t shoved in just to appeal to the sadists in the audience, but do contribute to the overall plot, one which is very intricate and complex. It can feel slow at times, but moves at a reasonable pace with enough twists and mystery to keep an audience engaged and always guessing all the way to the end.
All of this is lead confidently by a wonderful Jennifer Lawrence, who uses this film to once again remind us of her star power and excellent screen presence. With an understated performance, Lawrence develops her character brilliantly throughout the film, the cold-hearted spy we see at the end of the film very different from the ballerina at the start. What she really excels at, however, is an enigmatic expression and delivery of lines, succeeding in never allowing the audience to really know what she’s thinking or who’s side she’s really on. Opposite her stars Joel Edgerton. A charismatic and likeable FBI agent, Edgerton is a more refreshing and believable take on a spy than some we’ve grown accustomed to on the screen. Rampling and Irons are also valuable assets to the cast, their stony faces and harsh words having a powerful effect on the characters and film itself. On the other hand, though, there are times when the characters seem a little too bland; there seems to be a lack of deep characterisation which results in less sympathy from the audience. On top of that, the fake Russian accents soon run really thin. While they’re thankfully consistent, they are also strong and frequent enough to quickly become a tad annoying. You can’t help but wish either they’d spoken in Russian (although a typical audience doesn’t have the attention span to read subtitles) or just forgone the accent altogether.
Red Sparrow is unlikely to rank among the best of spy films and it seems at this stage somewhat unlikely that it will spawn the lucrative franchise that they seem to want. With slightly irritating Russian accents, an occasionally slow-moving plot and not much more than superficial characterisation, it’s unlikely to stand proudly with the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But with an engagingly bleak atmosphere, exciting plot that keeps your interest and Lawrence leading the way, Red Sparrow makes up for its flaws and reminds us how enjoyable these kinds of spy films can be.