TL;DR – A deeply confronting and often times dull film, there is a single moment that will probably determine if you like Red Sparrow or not, which is a huge gamble for a film like this
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Wow, just like Jennifer Lawrence’s last film mother! (see review), Red Sparrow is running the gauntlet of reviews from amazing to trash and everything in between, and after seeing it I completely understand how you could come to such vastly different opinions on it. This is a film that is banking everything on its ending and how much you are going to gel with that is going to dramatically shape how you engage with this film because it can be a slog to get through at times. So what we are going to do today is look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Red Sparrow. Then we will take a moment to look at that ending in a full spoilery moment.
So to set the scene, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is the principal ballerina at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Life is not easy as her, as her mother Nina (Joely Richardson) is unwell and needs constant medical attention. So it is a hard life, but also a rewarding one for her. All of that changes one day during a performance when her male partner makes a mistake and lands on her leg snapping the bone. For a ballerina, it is a career-ending injury, and with the Theater paying for both her apartment and her mother’s medical care, it is only a matter of time before they are thrown out on the street. However, it is at this moment when her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) a high ranking member of Russia’s security apparatus arrives and gives her a chance, do one little task for them and she will get security for her mother and herself. Well, that was the plan, but life never goes to plan and Dominika is given a choice, be part of the clean-up of ‘no witnesses’, or join an elite program creating sparrows. Sparrows are young Russian operatives that are trained in the arts of seduction, deception, and psychological manipulation, basically the Honey Pot, but on steroids. While this is happening Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) a CIA undercover operative is meeting with his contact in a Russian park when some VICE police got lucky and spotted them. In an attempt to protect his source who is high up in the intelligence services Nate fires his gun and blows his cover, only just making it to the US Embassy in time, but his contact got away. Soon both of these stories crash into each other in Budapest for better or worse. Now because this is a spy film, it means that it is hard to discuss it without immediately getting into some [SPOILERS] so this is just a warning that there will be some ahead.
Let us first start with the good, because I do believe that there is a lot of good here. The first good part of the film is how they set everything up, you get to know the players and the stakes right from the start and that really helps to drive the first act of the film. I think there are some really great performances here starting with Jennifer Lawrence. Dominika was not an easy role at all to play, it involved manipulating every person in the film, and some immense suffering. As well as this, we have some great performances by Charlotte Rampling who plays the matron of the ‘School’ Dominika attends, also drunk Mary-Louise Parker is always a delight to see on screen. Another thing I really liked is how one of the main themes Red Sparrow dealt with was power. How power exists over people, and how that same power can be manipulated. You see that clearly in Dominika’s story, and also that of her roommate Marta (Thekla Reuten) who only exist if they have ‘value’ to the state.
While there is a lot of good, there is also a lot of bad in this film, and the first place to really look at that is the pacing. The second act and most of the third is one long drag punctuated with moments of intensity. As with a lot of spy films, there is a lot of ‘is she or is she not’ a double agent. This is fine, as it goes to the heart of the film, but it keeps going on and on to the point that it almost gets dull. The film has a habit of setting up characters only to discard them, like the students in the sparrow school, which makes me think they are important later in the book series but felt underutilised here. As well as this, in a film dealing with the abuse of power as a core theme, it was frustrating to see it slip into filming from the male gaze at times. Also it is a concept that has been done a quite a bit in literature before, like Black Widow in Age of Ultron (see review) or last year’s The Villainess (see review) From the pacing of the film which has the dual problem of both feeling really dragged out but also stuffed to the brim. I get the feeling that this film would have been better suited as a mini-series on HBO or Netflix, where you could have the violence, language, and nudity, but could have paced things out much better over a longer more integrated work. Also, the Russian accents were a bit hit and miss at times.
There is a lot of good, and a lot of bad, but there also is a lot of ugly in this film, which both works and in some cases really does not. So your first warning that Red Sparrow is not going to hold back comes in that scene right at the start where Dominika has her leg broken and you here that god-awful snap, and even see some of the surgery used to fuse it back together. This is the first of many brutal scenes including torture, and rape that the film portrays in sometimes gruesome detail. While some of this ugly is intentional, to show the brutality of this world and the people in it, some of it is more unintentional. Every consensual sex scene in this film is awkwardly shot and presented and it is just awful and cringe-worthy.
Finally, we do have to talk about the ending of the film, and because it is the ending [MAJOR SPOILERS] will be ahead, so skip to the conclusion if you have not seen the film. So at the end of the film, we discover that the mole is none other than General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) creating a third complication. Dominika could betray the Russians and defect with Nate to America, she could be playing the Americans and Nate, and be secretly trying to find the mole all along, or now she could turn Korchnoi into the Russians and position herself in an even better position than him to continue passing information to the Americans. After all the ‘is she a double agent or not’ throughout the film, it all boils down to one moment when everyone thinks she has betrayed them while waiting on an airplane runway for a prisoner trade. It is here where the head cover is revealed to the other prisoner and we discover that Dominika is not being traded for Korchnoi but for her uncle. She has spent the all of the film setting up his downfall and it was a moment that left me re-evaluating the whole film. Every moment of the film rests on this one reveal and whether you hated it or loved it probably comes down to how you reacted when that character was revealed.
In the end, do we recommend Red Sparrow? Well maybe … sort of. Look a lot of this film is a long slog to get through, and that justifiably could be a deal breaker for a lot of people, and even then how much you will like the film will mostly come down to the ending, which might work for you or not. For me, the ending justified the film, but if it doesn’t for you, well you might have wasted the last couple of hours.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Red Sparrow
Directed by – Francis Lawrence
Screenplay by – Justin Haythe
Based on – Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Music by – James Newton Howard
Cinematography by – Jo Willems
Edited by – Alan Edward Bell
Starring – Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Hugh Quarshie, Sakina Jaffrey, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sasha Frolova & Kristof Konrad
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 18A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R