Movie Review: Elegant ‘Red Sparrow’ One of 2018’s First Great Films
The Cold War may officially be over, but as contemporary headlines indicate, the spy game is alive and well and an especially delicate arena between the United States and the former Soviet Union. It’s clear whose side the new Hollywood production Red Sparrow is on, but this is an elegantly depraved affair that isn’t afraid to take a nosedive into the icky innards of the spy business.
Based on the novel by former real-life CIA agent Jason Matthews and directed by Francis Lawrence (who made the final three Hunger Games movies), Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence as a Bolshoi ballerina whose career comes to a devastating end in a graphic on-stage accident in the film’s opening sequence.
The fate of Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova is intercut with that of American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who fires off a pistol in Gorky Park to protect the identity of a high-ranking mole before being exiled from Moscow.
Under the guise of helping support her disabled mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika is recruited by pervy uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, who here strikingly resembles a young Putin) to come work for the government, which includes higher-ups played by Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds.
But once she gets in too deep she has no way out, and is forced into training as a “sparrow”: an operative who uses sexual manipulation to turn her targets and get the information she needs. Her first assignment is to seduce Nash and learn the identity of his mole, but as the two spies begin a relationship, which one is really manipulating the other?
Red Sparrow is drenched in violence and sexual perversity, but contrasted against something like the bombastic (but similarly-plotted) Atomic Blonde it feels positively refined: this is a surprisingly elegant production that elevates the duality of the world of spies into a tense puzzle as we try to figure out which side, and what outcome, we ought to be rooting for.
Small quibble: the Americans, which include Edgerton’s character and others played by Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, seem resolutely logical about the nature of their what their doing, while most of the Russian characters aren’t given the same level of depth; they seem to wallow in the depravities of the spy game.
Lawrence, sporting a thicker Russian accent than many of her European co-stars, is nevertheless magnetic in the lead: there’s an impenetrable level of intrigue in her character, and the star carefully navigates our sympathy to always keep us on our toes.
In one standout scene, Dominika strips down in front of a classroom to humiliate a fully-clothed would-be rapist who cannot perform; in another, she delicately handles a drunken American asset (Mary Louise-Parker, in a scene-stealing minor role) in the presence of her chilly boss (Douglas Hodge).
Among the excellent supporting cast, Schoenaerts is a real standout as the depraved uncle, but the great Charlotte Rampling also turn in some fine work as Dominika’s unimpressed sparrow instructor. German actor Sebastian Hülk also makes an impression in a villainous role.
The film’s climax, which is delicately plotted out during throughout the rest of the film, is an especially satisfying resolution that didn't need to be spelled out via flashback a la The Usual Suspects for the simpletons in back.
Red Sparrow runs a longish 140 minutes but never feels anything less than fully-engaging; there’s no scene out of place, no fat that could be trimmed. But because the film is light on action and heavy on class and intrigue and perversity for a Hollywood production, it’s getting a lukewarm reception by most.
That’s a shame: Red Sparrow is easily one of the best films of early 2018, and one of the classiest Cold War thrillers since, well, the end of the Cold War.