Director: Franis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton & Jeremy Irons
Rating: 15 Duration: 140 minutes Release date: 9 July (UK)
Taut, suspenseful spy films seem to be a thing of the past. Much like the cold war scenarios that give life to Red Sparrow, films of its ilk are a rare breed, found as if by accident. With more bombastic efforts such as the Bourne series, Atomic Blonde and Salt, the spy genre is more Hollywood than it’s ever been. Red Sparrow instead aims for a style closer to The Third Man crossed with a really cracking episode of 24.
Maybe it’s just me getting old, but it feels to me like the spy genre needs a more back to basics approach. Please don’t get me wrong, I love Mission: Impossible, Skyfall and I even believe there’s room for Kingsman. But, the type of old-school thriller that Red Sparrow is aiming for is something we don’t see enough of these days. Director Francis Lawrence, no relation to Jennifer, has crafted a tight genre film that isn’t overstuffed with twists & turns and carries enough emotional heft to keep you watching until the closing credits.
Much like the hinted at Black Widow storyline from the MCU, Red Sparrow focuses on a former Russian ballerina who suffers a horrific on-stage accident. Unable to dance again, Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika is given a choice by her Uncle, who just so happens to work for Russian Intelligence. Dominika must either become a spy and serve her country and her Uncle’s needs, or suffer the consequences of being witness to a brutal murder, set up by her not so loving Uncle. In return, Dominika gets to live, as does her sickly mother, but in doing so must give her body to the state – quite literally.
Red Sparrow is not a shy film. There are scenes of intense torture, and some graphic nudity. If ever you’ve wondered how a skin-graft machine could be used in a torture scene, then wonder no more. Red Sparrow is not high on action, but when it does kick in you really feel every punch. A knife fight later in the film will have you writhing in discomfort. Instead, what Lawrence does is try to shape the tension to a point where an action scene almost feels like a pointless aside. The downside being that at 140 minutes, Red Sparrow is 20 minutes too long and could have done with tightening up in places. Scenes where we see Joel Edgerton’s CIA operative glances adoringly at Jennifer Lawrence’s effortless good looks could have been muted, while some scenes at the Sparrow’s training academy border on perverse.
This is though, a film that does not take its source material lightly and isn’t afraid to show you what it, supposedly, takes to become a spy. Bodies are put on the line, and Charlotte Rampling’s Headmistress of the Sparrow School will not abide anyone intimidated by say, giving a blow-job to an official suspected of being a paedophile. Rampling chews every scene she is in and adds real dimension to an otherwise thinly drawn character. Likewise, Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons show their class in minimal roles.
Red Sparrow isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable. And for a cold-war style thriller, it has it where it counts. Jennifer Lawrence again proves herself to be one of the bravest actresses working today, and Joel Edgerton carries on a list of fine performances, the type of which we have come to expect from him. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, and some may well be put off by it, but Red Sparrow works well enough for what it is, even if it doesn’t linger much afterwards.