Movie Review: Red Sparrow

A spy thriller about Russia misses out on a chance to be timely

Red Sparrow (Rudá volavka)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
With Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Russian meddling in international affairs has been back in the news, and that should make the spy thriller Red Sparrow moderately interesting. But the film has far too many shortcomings.

The tone shifts rapidly in the film, which was adapted from a 434 page book, into a 140 minute movie that shifts locations between Moscow, Budapest, Vienna and London. Filming took place in Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and London.

The basic premise is that a ballet diva, Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is forced by an odd series of events to become a Russian secret agent. She winds up entangled in some convoluted plot about a high-level mole and another about an American diplomat willing to sell secrets.

Nobody can be trusted, Russian spy supervisors are sleazy pigs, and even the spies spend more time stabbing each other in the back than spying on the West. The American spies are a bit better, but still rather bumbling and prone to infighting.

It all turns into a boring rehash of James Bond motifs, without the requisite action. Trying to do the tale without endless automatic weapons fire from fast moving cars and various explosions is praiseworthy. But the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

The story instead wanders into a bizarre and frankly unbelievable plot about a sex school for spies, which is reminiscent of Euro softcore exploitation films from the 1970s.

The idea behind the ridiculous school is that the spies taught there, called sparrows — hence the title —will seduce high-level targets and compromise them into giving up secrets.

The school is a dingy, uninviting place with the air of a prison. None of the students want to be there. For some unknown reason, the Russian secret service has filled it with prudes who seem particularly uninterested in seduction. Attractive Russian women who actually want to hang out with rich men are not exactly hard to locate in Moscow, and might have made better students.

The head mistress of Sparrow School, called Matron, is played by veteran actress Charlotte Rampling.

A long time ago in 1974, she appeared in the controversial Italian sadomasochistic film Night Porter, Her presence as a domineering mistress really helps to link this part of the film to 1970s Euro trash cinema.

No sooner is the audience freed from what Jennifer Lawrence’s character calls “whore school” than they are thrown into torture porn. Something has gone wrong, and people have to be questioned with power tools. This is all rather grim and drawn out.

The plot filled with twists upon twists somehow just never becomes engaging. Dominika Egorova, after leaving Sparrow School, becomes mixed up with an American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). The two actors have no chemistry at all, and it is hard to care which spy is tricking the other.

The casting in general also damages the film. British actor Jeremy Irons plays a key Russian intelligence officer, and Irish actor Ciarán Hinds is one of his subordinates. Like Charlotte Rampling, they do not exude any sense of Russian-ness even with their movie accents. Jennifer Lawrence gives a surprisingly flat performance. She is particularly unconvincing as a ballerina, though that is a small part of the film.

The only one who seems vaguely Russian is Matthias Schoenaerts as Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov, one of the truly bad characters.

While the recent news about Russia has been about cyber attacks on voting systems and fake news troll farms, Red Sparrow is frustratingly old-fashioned. Part of the plot even revolves around a set of floppy disks being exchanged for a giant bag of actual cash.

The book was actually praised by the CIA for its authenticity, and the author actually has experience as a spy. But somehow that didn’t translate to the screen version.

Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) worked with Jennifer Lawrence on three of the Hunger Games films, Red Sparrow is the first novel in a spy trilogy, and more films are likely to follow.

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