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Red Sparrow is a Painful Watch

I don’t know the last time an espionage thriller like Red Sparrow was made; one that borrows heavily from the action and erotic subsets of the genre with some Soviet intrigue added to the mix. This movie, based on the spy book by Jason Matthews (a former CIA operative himself), was advertised to imply a plot about a cold, expert spy/assassin who was moulded through rigorous conditioning –it looked a lot like the inferred Black Widow back story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that’s not exactly what the movie turned out to be. Which is a shame, because it would have been better as advertised.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a former Russian ballerina, is in desperate straits to support her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). As such, she is pressured by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for Russian Intelligence, to seduce a corrupt politician. But when the action takes an unexpected turn, Dominika becomes a security threat. So she’s forced to train to become a special operative called a “Sparrow”. Meanwhile, a CIA agent called Nash (Joel Edgerton) is working with a Russian mole and soon becomes enamoured with Dominika.
Red Sparrow re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three Hunger Games movies. His past on those films is evident in some of the action scenes and the way he films the political intrigue and looming threats. But this movie is a lot more adult-oriented in its content, though that by no means makes it good. The story for one thing, is way too convoluted and the pacing is really off. There’s possible evidence, which is never discussed, that Dominika has been doing work similar to her uncles’ recruitment for some time before the events of the film. And this movie is way too long, with about three gruelling climaxes, none of which are very interesting. But the biggest problem is that the bleak tone is supplemented by intense violence that is almost always either overdone or superfluous.  It makes for a number of scenes that are very unpleasant to watch. There’s a torture sequence that adds nothing to the plot, a handful of excessively brutal attacks, one particularly gruesome weapon, and a disturbing amount of sexual violence. This is the second consecutive film for Jennifer Lawrence where she’s sexually assaulted multiple times, and it’s just as awful to watch as in Mother! And the movie never really earns any of these; even when they do contribute directly to the plot, I felt they didn’t need to be as extensive. They’re scenes that come off as more masochistic shock value than anything else, and there’s very little separating Red Sparrow from just being an exploitation film. The similarity is especially palpable at the school, where sexual manipulation is a key part of the Sparrows’ training, and the matron (Charlotte Rampling) doesn’t hesitate to routinely grope and force students to strip.
Red Sparrow managed to assemble a really talented cast, even if most of them aren’t performing their best here. This is a movie of American, British, Irish, Belgian, Dutch, and Polish actors all doing Russian accents, so of course some won’t sound right. But to her credit, Lawrence has one of the better accents, and there are times in this movie where she‘s really trying her best. However the character isn’t allowed to have much emotion outside of when she’s being tormented, so the result is a performance that a lot of the time seems stale. I understand the sympathy we’re meant to feel for Dominika is in how she’s been forced into a certain lifestyle, but there’s no levity, no balance to her personality at all to connect with. We only see her determination and misery, which Lawrence can do well, but it doesn’t make for a compelling character. The only other character the movie tries to give some personality to is her manipulative uncle Ivan, but in all honesty that may just come from Schoenaerts’ charismatic demeanour. Edgerton is fine, if underwhelming as the American spy trying to recruit Dominika, and Rampling does the best she could possibly do with such a B-grade stock character. This film also features Mary-Louise Parker showing up unexpectedly as a U.S. senator with important information, Ciaran Hinds as the Head of Russian Intelligence, and none other than Jeremy Irons as his right-hand man. Irons probably has the worst accent of the bunch, but for his handful of scenes he’s a welcome presence. Same goes for noted stage and television actor Douglas Hodge as one of Dominika’s thoroughly unlikeable associates.
This is certainly a movie with aspirations. It tries to have a clever style, effective tension, and James Newton Howard’s score (like many of his) is bombastic and elaborate, particularly near the end. But the excesses in its darker moments combined with unassuming performances and characters, and an obtuse and confusing story that goes on far too long makes Red Sparrow a pretty unappealing movie overall.

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