Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Film Review #105

Red Sparrow (2018)
Director: Francis Lawrence Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Certificate: 15 Running Time: 140 Minutes

Tagline: "The road to forgiveness begins with betrayal."

It has been a while since I watched a decent spy thriller so I was looking forward to seeing this one, even more so with the usually-reliable Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. The fact that it's based on a novel by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent himself no less, only adds to its credentials. I guess novels don't always make the best movies but it should at least mean there's a decent story here. It has to do with 'Sparrows', the product of an SVR (formerly the KGB) programme of so-called 'sexpionage' operatives trained to seduce and gain the trust of targets with a view to exploiting them, usually by divulging compromising information or items. Lawrence is Dominika Egorova, a celebrated Russian ballerina who uses her earnings to support her ill mother. When she suffers a career-ending injury (mid-performance no less), however, it looks as though both of them are destined for destitution.

Dazzling the crowds with her first job...
That is, until she is offered a last minute escape route by her uncle, Ivan (Schoenaerts), the Deputy Director of SVR. After witnessing the killing of a high-ranking Russian gangster, she is given two options. Either join the Sparrow programme or be executed to ensure there are no witnesses to the killing. I guess it's not much of a choice! Despite being a rather unwilling recruit, she excels at the harsh training school overseen by Matron (Rampling) and is soon on her first assignment in Budapest. Her mission is to gain the trust of Nate Nash (Edgerton), a CIA operative, who is looking to speak to his Russian 'contact' who, to his own people, is viewed as a mole, and it's Dominika's job to find out who he is by cosying up to Nash.

Showing initiative during training for her second job...
Interestingly, while these events are purely fictional, the Sparrow programme is supposedly based in reality. I guess that's not hugely surprising - it sounds exactly like the kind of thing those crafty Soviets would get up to during the Cold War, and the film very much has that sort of air about it. It's definitely set around the present day - looking at the cars on the streets confirms that - but it often looks and feels like a Cold War-era film, from the sets and locations, choice of colour palettes, and clothing/hairstyles right up to the film's almost complete absence of modern technology. There's even an information exchange using good old 3.5 inch floppy disks! I think I quite like this actually. You could argue that films have gotten too tech-heavy in recent years. The film industry is just moving with the times I suppose but it's nice to see a bit more emphasis on the people than their gadgets.

Uncle Ivan meeting with the top brass...
The people here are pretty good too. Jeremy Irons is a standout in his few scenes as Korchnoi, a Russian general, and Edgerton and Schoenaerts are perfect for their parts, the latter being particularly unscrupulous. No uncle of the year awards beckon for him, I deem! Like most of her films though, Red Sparrow is regarded as a 'Jennifer Lawrence film', but it's a little surprising she took a role like this being the outspoken feminist that she is. Not that there's anything wrong with that, obviously, but Dominika and the many real life women like her are objectified about as thoroughly as any women could be. They were (and presumably still are) exploited, degraded and used with no value placed on their very lives, never mind their well-being. Even if some of them are willing to 'serve', I'm sure just as many are coerced in some way as this film demonstrates.

Dominika 'persuades' Nash to trust her...
The world is a very cruel, unfair place for many though, I suppose, and perhaps this is just an attempt to shine more light on the subject. Some have called it an example of female empowerment but I'm not sure I buy that. Sure, Dominika gives as good as she gets for the most part, but she is still treated appallingly for much of the film's 140 min duration. Nonetheless, it's a typically committed performance from Lawrence (which includes her first nude scene of note - another surprise from her). Her Russian accent isn't perfect but it's hard not to feel for Dominika as she's blackmailed, assaulted, beaten, and lord knows what else. It doesn't make repeat viewings too appealing and the slightly meandering plot doesn't help either, but it's still a reasonably entertaining and occasionally unpredictable film with enough memorable scenes to make a first viewing worthwhile.

RKS Score: 7/10


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