Francis Lawrence has spent all his career doing book adaptations. And whilst that seems pigeonholed, the genres of the films have been surprisingly diverse. He’s made action-fantasy, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, romance, and young adult fiction films. His next genre is spy thriller, and it is based on a book of the same name by Jason Matthews. Add in another collaboration between him and Jennifer Lawrence after The Hunger Games sequels, and the result should be successful. Unfortunately, the film is less than the sum of its parts.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a career ending injury. She soon finds herself having to provide for her sick mother by doing a favour for her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who ends up forcing her to join a training program run by a matriarch (Charlotte Rampling). After this is over, she officially works as a “Red Sparrow” for her government, and whilst she is on a mission, she starts forming a relationship with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) that soon becomes dangerous, and the web of lies and intrigue starts to grow from there.
The story is ripe for conspiracy and thrills and the film is aware of that. The opening scene cross cuts between Nate on a mission and Dominika doing a ballet dance, and it is easily the most engaging part of the film. It feels like there are stakes and tension, and it seems as if the film is going to be exciting. After this point, however, the film never tops this scene, and the story never goes anywhere exciting. There are forced attempts at increasing intensity: a minor car chase, a couple of torture scenes and a twist during the climax. But all these moments feel like they come and go, and they lack weight because the story has not made the effort to give these events meaning.
The performances do not help. Every actor does a serviceable job, but no one really goes above and beyond. Jennifer Lawrence gives the best performance, sporting a decent Russian accent and conveying plenty of emotion in an understated manner. However, every other cast member fails to bring anything fresh to their characters. Joel Edgerton is as watchable as ever, but his character is uninteresting. Charlotte Rampling and Matthias Schoenaerts both play their villainous characters with a total lack of enthusiasm and menace, which prevents them from having any screen presence. And other actors, such as Jeremy Irons, Mary Louise-Parker and Ciarán Hinds feel like ciphers that disappear into the background for long stretches, so they also lack screen presence.
The pacing of the film is middling. There are plenty of moments where the editing speeds certain sequences up using insert shots and cross cutting (Dominika telling her mother that she must go away is intercut with her heading to the compound), and these keep the film moving along nicely. But the film’s pacing is uneconomical, as it uses its 140-minute running time to draw out the plot, rather than the themes or characterisation. Because of this, none of the relationships ring true. Dominika and Nate share no chemistry as actors or characters, the important connection between Dominika and her mother is shallow, and the emotionally abusive relationship between Dominika and her uncle comes across as casual rather than disturbing. This results in a film that is all dressed up but has nowhere to go, and one that fails to get inside the head of the characters.
The only aspect of the film that gets a reaction is how lurid it is. Although it is good to see a wide release that has the guts to show some disturbing content, it also feels awkward and uncomfortable in a way that certain audiences might not enjoy. The scenes in the training program show most of this, but there are scenes before and after this sequence that feature graphic violence and sexual content that is meant to be unerotic. For example, there is a constant theme of sleazy old men wanting to have their way with younger females that might remind people of the recent Hollywood sexual harassment cases, and whilst the film shows restraint in some areas, it feels ill-advised now. The film attempts to justify this by giving Dominika an arc of gaining power over these male figures, but it does not make up for the numerous scenes where she is objectified and violated.
The biggest positives come from the production values. Jo Willems does an excellent job with the cinematography, giving the film a polished and desaturated look that makes each frame incredibly alluring. James Newton Howard’s score is mostly understated, but when it comes in, it has an operatic touch that gives the scenes it plays under a lot of weight. The production design is also gorgeous and convincing, and it adds appeal that the film’s story is lacking in.
Red Sparrow is far from being terrible, but it is disappointing and could have been better. Given the talent involved, the result should have been more interesting and thrilling than the uninteresting and boring film that ended up being made. Die-hard fans of spy thrillers or of the book it is based on might enjoy it, but general audiences should steer clear.