Francis Lawrence’s new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is a tale of espionage, of false identities, and of competing American and Russian interests.
The film is a high dose of sex and violence that begins with a gruesome on-screen leg break and only gets worse from there. Set in present times, the main protagonist, a spy, blows her cover almost immediately at the beginning of her mission. This is a story of a secret agent Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) who angrily complains of being sent to a spy school by her government, a plot that tries to flesh out the undercurrent of misogynistic coercion inherent in so many of these narratives.
Based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, an ex-CIA operative who is said to have brought much of his expertise to a story of two secret agents, one Russian and one American, navigating intricate surveillance missions around the world in a game of one-upmanship. If there were any realism in the book, it seems to have been stripped off in the film that focuses less on the gritty details of espionage and more on the various crimes visited upon the body and soul of Dominika.
You witness the circumstances of Dominika at the start of the film where she is shown to be a dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. After a career-ending injury, she’s pressed into governmental service by her creepy uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian-intelligence official. She has a sick mother (Joely Richardson) that Ivan offers to protect if she can act as an amateur honeypot, baiting a politician into a compromising position so that he can extract information. That mission goes on to be a bloody nightmare, but successful enough for Dominika to be sent to spy camp to become a ‘Sparrow,’ or a secret agent trained in the art of seduction.
The spy camp is an inhuman, months-long training camp seemingly designed to detach budding agents from their own bodies. The camp, that is run by a stern lady referred to as 'Matron' (Charlotte Rampling), is the most brutal part of the film. Dominika and her classmates have to strip naked and perform sex acts on strangers, all in front of each other, while Matron looks on with a disapproving glare. Outside this ‘classroom’ things are equally dreadful where Dominika beats a male student half to death in the showers for attempting to rape her.
Francis Lawrence, who has worked with Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Game series, has depicted a darker strain of anger in this film. It is peculiar that as a spy, Dominika’s only job is to seduce. There are no training in martial arts or firing or some such skill which one assumes is needed in a spy.
Eventually, a well-trained Dominika’s target is a CIA-agent (Joel Edgerton) who’s in league with a high-ranking Russian intelligence source. Sent with a task to extract a name, Dominika falls in love with the agent. Or does she? There starts a guessing game for what and who is real. And here, in just this part, it feels like a genuine film on espionage.
Jennifer Lawrence is steely but still somewhat charming and dramatizes well the tale of Red Sparrow, that is Dominika fighting to hold onto a grain of empathy in the pitiless world she’s thrust into. Francis Lawrence’s drama is intense and made on a grand scale that will be perhaps remembered as a graphic throwback thriller that tried to push the boundaries of a contemporary studio filmmaking.