“True value comes in the smallest imperfection,” a surly Russian politician says, voice accented and weighted with top-shelf liquor. He hungrily eyes the lengthy scar on the exposed shin of a dark-haired, lingerie-clad young woman. But what’s omitted in this seemingly beautiful phrase is that imperfections, in excess, can lead to failure. And “Red Sparrow”, “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence’s latest film, is full of them.
O n its surface, “Red Sparrow” is a strange and disorienting combination of existing works. It reads like a greatest hits playlist of movies that have come before with shocking moments heavy-handedly dispersed to distract from its lack of originality. Beyond these diversions — choreographed fight scenes and careless espionage — this movie’s core is feminism — as told by a man. Think “Black Swan” meets “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but with none of the smart social commentary of the latter that justifies the physical and emotional violence.
In modern day Moscow, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a successful, adored prima ballerina who lives with her sickly mother. After a startling career-ending incident, Dominika finds herself on the verge of losing her apartment and her mom’s in-home care, both of which are paid for by the Bolshoi Ballet Company. When an ultimatum appears by way of her unsettlingly attentive uncle, Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), she accepts. Chosen for their “beauty and strength”, Dominika is sent to a special school for “sparrows”: covert Russian intelligence agents who use their bodies and minds to manipulate information from powerful political figures.
There, she and the other recruits are trained in physical combat and sexual eloquence. Their boundaries are pushed to their breaking point but Dominika remains morally steadfast, clinging to her former self, as her mother instructed her to. Once released from school, Dominika is quickly relocated to Budapest where she is appointed to gain intelligence on an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and finds herself immediately drawn to him. From there, things get just as complicated as we expect.
From the opening moments, we’re immersed in this cinematic world: bitingly chilly, filled with handwritten secret codes and Cossack hats. There is no room to mistake where we are. In this world, there are no boundaries, only semblances of them—motivated by the physically cold, unfriendly environment. The only place Dominika can feel truly comfortable is beside her mother in bed, a warmth she desperately tries to attain throughout the film’s 141 minutes.
In the life of a sparrow, violence is par for the course — their “bodies belong to the state”, merely pawns in the SVR’s plans, just as their lives are at the will of communism. No one can be trusted. Sex is a game, unwillingly played.
In thigh-high leather boots, with deft eyes peeking through bangs — first brunette, then blonde — Jennifer Lawrence takes on her most daring role yet. She told CBS’ 60 Minutes that taking on this character, who disrobes entirely in more than one scene, helped her overcome the trauma she acquired after the 2014 nude photo leak. Unfortunately, her genuine effort exists within this ill-devised cinematic effort. Dominika, who walks surprisingly well in four-inch heels for someone whose leg was broken just months ago, seems to solely exist as a sexual icon, a physical representation of the male fantasy. There are only hints of a backstory. Her supposed layers are meant to help us sympathize with her, justify the acts that follow. She’s almost entirely void of personality or character: we’re told several times that she has a temper, that she’s feisty, but only really get to see it in one, jarringly violent scene. The impression her thinly-laid portrayal exudes is parallel to the way her character is treated within the movie.
By the time the ending credits roll, one thing can be determined for sure: Dominika is there to be desired — nothing more.
Director Francis Lawrence also collaborated with Jennifer Lawrence on “The Hunger Games” movie series, where they developed a close artistic working relationship. Jennifer Lawrence was the only actor he considered for the leading role; she was first to see and give notes on the movie in its entirety, a position of creative power that is relatively unusual to be given to an actor.
Interestingly enough, Francis Lawrence gained acclaim for directing music videos for pop icons such as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez — but that type of style and imagination do not carry over into this.
The Vienna-born director adapted the film from a book of the same name, which was written by a former CIA agent Jason Matthews and published in 2013. Although true to the source material, the locale seemingly acts a narrative shortcut, playing on the American audience’s innate fear of communism and Russia’s stoic, authoritative appearance in the media.
The high point for the film are the visuals. With its multi-million dollar budget, production designer Maria Djurkovic, who was the creative visionary behind tonally similar period pieces such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Imitation Game”, crafts a world that straddles both economic extremities of Moscow: the baroque and the grime. From the first few scenes, the golden decadence of the opera house clashes with the dingy subway tiles of an underground tunnel, establishing the divide that Dominika stands upon the precipice of, at the will of the Bolshoi Ballet. Under Djurkovic’s supervision, each location boasts gorgeous, muted colors and intricate wallpapers which effortlessly fall into place alongside the bleak cityscape, blanketed in snow.
Just as there’s no purpose for unsolicited nudity and violence, nor for said events to take place in Russia, “Red Sparrow” adds nothing to the existing cinematic landscape. By the closing scenes, what Francis Lawrence is trying to say with this film remains muddled beneath forced accents, unapologetic sexuality, and ubiquitous violence. Perhaps he’s trying to claim that sex is the most powerful ammunition — that the most intimate shreds of knowledge can be uncovered when actions are aimed at one’s weakest point: desire.
“Red Sparrow” is now playing in theaters nationwide.