Red Sparrow

RED SPARROW. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Charlotte Rampling. Also starring, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes, violence, sexual violence, sex scenes, and coarse language). 139 min.

This is an American spy thriller based on the novel of the same name, written by Jason Matthews and published in 2013. It tells the story of a Russian intelligence officer, Dominika Egorova, and a CIA agent, Nathaniel Nash, who have opposing spy allegiances. The lives of the two spies are complicated by the fact that they fall in love with each other.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers an injury on stage that ends her career in Soviet Russia as a promising Bolshoi Prima Ballerina. Dejected and uncertain, she searches for another mission in life, and finds a secret intelligence service, named The Sparrow School, and is guided towards it by her manipulative and scheming uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The Sparrow School trains exceptional young people and is under the control of its Headmistress (Charlotte Rampling), who executes her role with ice-cold calculation and brutal resolve. The Matron, as she is called, efficiently trains her recruits “to use their bodies and minds as weapons”.

The training of recruits in the School is sadistic, callous, and unfeeling, and Dominika excels. She emerges from the program as one of the best persons the School has ever recruited. Her role is to seduce enemies of the state, and to kill them if necessary, and she is considered by her superiors to be perfect for their work. Trying to understand the person she has become, Dominica receives her assignments, one of which is to seduce CIA agent, Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), thought to be an American mole in Russia. Her assignment is to expose and terminate him, if necessary.

When Dominika finds herself attracted to Nathaniel, he attempts to tell her that he is the only person she can trust. Dominika is tempted to become a double agent, and Nathaniel wants that very much. But knowing that Nathaniel is involved with the CIA’s penetration of Russian intelligence, the conflict she experiences as a well-trained spy, programmed to seduce and kill, becomes acute. Stepping inside and outside of their spy roles, Egorova and Nash embark on strategies of deception which are fuelled by their training as spies, and by their growing attraction to each other.

“Red Sparrow” is a movie about an “agent extraordinaire”. It is a stylised action film, with an ice-cold heroine, who dresses suitably for the occasion. She is lethal to oppose, and the film provides superficial, espionage-watching that constantly aims to entertain. Dominika is very talented at the spy game, and the movie has fast action, and demonstrates good stunt work. But “Red Sparrow” mixes love with lethal intent, while trying to stay true to its stylised, thriller format. To kill and to love require at least a modicum of realistic drama, that puts a temporary hold on lethal violence, and the plot line of the film twists and turns, not seeming at times to know where to go. But it is the violence in this movie that pointedly distracts.

When violence occurs in Red Sparrow, it is frequently prolonged; more often than not, it  is erotically charged - from Sparrow School training to work in the field; and the aggression it shows frequently borders on the gratuitous. This film is over-violent, and plays liberally with sexual violence. True deception is the name of the game in quality spy movies, but in this movie, the nature of the violence gets in the way.

The film’s political intrigue and its thriller format makes it hard to sustain the emotional complexity of the characters the film depicts. The acting in the film - notably by Lawrence, Edgerton, Schoenaerts, and Rampling - is formidable; and the pace of the action is absorbing; but the film is essentially restricted in appeal. Ruthlessness for “Red Sparrow” simply goes too far, particularly when the film tries to entertain viewers by engaging in something as unacceptable as sexual violence which occurs frequently - an especially gruesome torture scene towards the end of the movie in its last ten minutes, not-withstanding. 

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Twentieth Century Fox

Released March 1st., 2018


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