“Red Sparrow,” the new film from director Francis Lawrence (“Hunger Games,” “Water for Elephants”), fails to add any sparkle to the spy genre, instead offering an unnecessarily gruesome and stereotypical journey through the perilous world of Russian espionage.
Set in modern-day Russia, the film tells the story of beloved ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), whose dancing career abruptly ends after she’s injured during a performance. Dominika accepts an offer from her uncle, Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), to work for Russian intelligence to earn money to care for her sick mother. When Dominika is asked to seduce Russian politician Dimitry Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), the mission goes horribly wrong and she is forced to become a full-time Russian spy to avoid execution.
The film exhibits its fair share of brutality and gore, while perpetuating overused tropes, such as an inevitable romance between Dominika and CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Dominika’s relationship with both Nash and the CIA proves to be disappointingly predictable, lacking creative twists and turns, which could have made the plot more engaging.
From its unenthusiastic beginning to its uninspiring end, “Red Sparrow” continually thrives on exploitation of the female form. By basing Dominika’s skillset on her seductive talent, the film fails its protagonist in every way. Rather than crafting a riveting, complex tale of espionage from an intelligent, feminine perspective, Francis Lawrence taps into Hollywood’s love of overly sexualized female roles.
Francis Lawrence’s obsession with sexual themes lacks any real substance when viewed in context of the film’s plot. This is glaringly apparent in the scenes depicting the Russian intelligence’s school for new recruits, known as the “Sparrow School.” Within its stark walls, Dominika and others are forced to endure scrutiny of the most abhorrent kind under the menacing eyes of the school’s headmistress, Matron, who is solidly portrayed by Charlotte Rampling. The school’s training consists of forcing recruits to engage in sexual acts with other students and intelligence members, making for some truly cringe-worthy and unnecessary moments. Lawrence’s decision to revolve his storyline around sexual violence fails to add any depth to an otherwise ordinary spy story.
With unrelenting audacity, the film strips its female protagonist — both physically and emotionally — in order to please predominantly male viewers and, evidently, fails in the attempt. This decision is distasteful when viewed in light of recent campaigns against sexual harassment, such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. The film handles the subject of sexual violence far too lightly, passing it off as a somehow vital component of a shoddy spy thriller, which is realistically mundane and poorly written.
Aside from the film’s uninspiring plot and risky sexual themes, Jennifer Lawrence offers a solid performance as Dominika, bearing herself gracefully and powerfully to reflect both her character’s past dance experience and her unexpected spy career. Her gaze is frighteningly direct, and her emotional reactions to the film’s most unusual and gruesome scenes seem genuine. The only thing lacking in Lawrence’s performance is a steady Russian accent, which disappears on a few occasions throughout the film. Schoenaerts also offers a strong performance as Dominika’s uncle, perfecting the unsettling suavity and abrasive air of a seasoned member of Russian intelligence. In truth, the film’s commendable acting may be the only salvageable piece to emerge from Francis Lawrence’s cinematic disaster.
“Red Sparrow” is disappointingly male-driven despite having a female protagonist, relying on naked bodies and occasional sexist language to try to earn a place alongside other successful films within its genre, such as “Skyfall” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The film is so misogynistic it seems to sink the instant it begins, and considering its stereotypes and sexism, perhaps it’s best Francis Lawrence’s latest work disappear from sight.
“Red Sparrow” is now playing in theaters nationwide.