Red Sparrow

Department of Morally Bankrupt Movies

Let me get this off my chest: Jennifer Lawrence is not only a giant supernova movie star, she is also a phenomenal actress. If you do not agree or understand this concept, you and I have nothing to talk about. Having said this, one wonders why she felt compelled to carry a movie like this one. There is a good story smothered under the literal ineptitude of the director Francis Lawrence and a horrid script by Justin Haythe based on a novel by Jason Matthews. This may be the reason why such a tasteless production attracted this cast of thousands: Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Edgerton, Ciaran Hinds, Mary Louise Parker, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodges, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey. Or maybe it was the big fat check. Either way, I knew we were in trouble in the opening scene. Lawrence plays Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina, and director Francis Lawrence decides to show her dancing up a storm onstage, not to the music of the ballet, but to the overwrought score of the movie. This is the first sign of the incompetent grotesquerie to come. If you cannot fathom that a Russian prima ballerina should be dancing to the music, you as a director break my heart.

Now, this is a spy thriller, which means there are lies and duplicity and potentially twisted human conflicts, but Lawrence and the screenwriters are not interested in pursuing nuance. Everything is obscenely literal in this film, and that includes endless, lovingly shot scenes of humiliation, rape (at least two of them) and torture. They can’t nail a ballerina dancing on a stage, but they can show her being raped and tortured with great skill. This is repulsive.

Even with an atrocious wig the color of kasha, even with an unfortunate Russian accent and bad lines, Jennifer Lawrence is alive and present, and never has one fake moment. I wonder why directors want to take this sparkler of a woman, and snuff all the joie de vivre out of her (see mother!) An hour and a half goes by before we see her smile. I’m not saying Lawrence should only do comedies. She can do whatever she damn well pleases, but I find it interesting that directors like to muzzle her. And even more interesting is that she lets them. So far, the only one who has mined her greatness to her best advantage is David O. Russell.

Dominika is a brutally competitive woman. But she has to have a disabled mom (Joely Richardson, wonderful) because this is character conflict 101, and she needs to be sympathetic in the most obvious way. Dominika will do anything for her mom. Let us count our blessings: at least it’s not her dad. I think far more interesting and unexplored is the possibility that her motivation is not only to save the apartment that the Bolshoi pays for, and doctors for her mom (nice but boring), but that she finally arrived at the height of her career only to have it whisked away, apparently, and this is absurdly unclear, by men with power. This would better explain her rage and grief and why she can properly become a machine of savagery and deception. But no, the pedestrian mom-apartment situation wins the day. Many opportunities are missed to create a dimensional emotional world for her. The storytelling is muddy, and there is a cluelessness about her most basic reality that I found frustrating. For instance, they are oblivious to the fact that if she has endured the rigors of Russian ballet training from an early age, undergoing ruthless spy training should not be such a stretch. Her most important relationship is with her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, strangely unfocussed), but although not coy at rape and bloodletting, the movie is bashful about his unhealthy fixation with his niece. This is a total waste of both their talents. At some point I kept looking at the costumes and the cars to make sure the movie was set in the present, because these Russians still behave as if they are living under Stalin. Yes, today’s Russia is a dictatorship but now it is the paternalistic graft of Putin and his Mother Russia wet dream, not of “The State”. The movie is almost two hours and a half long, and the only respite from the nasty tone, the confused politics and the unintentional camp are the pros who try to come to the rescue at great peril to their dignity. That is, the actors.

Take Jeremy Irons. This man could recite the instructions on a can of dog food and make it sound like Shakespeare. He does very little, but the little he does is sly, still, and delicious. Take Charlotte Rampling, who is surely here to burnish her reputation as the biggest perv in the history of cinema. That she can do this with intelligence and wit is a testament to her genius. But the one who absconds with the movie is Mary-Louise Parker, who in no more than three minutes, hams it up to the hilt, makes a drunk entrance, insults Boris, a soviet Spy, and brings much needed humanity to the proceedings. Luckily, Joel Edgerton and J. Law have good chemistry, and the character actors are superb.

As for torture in the movies, it’s like sex: far more powerful the less you show it. Alas, we are not in John Le Carré or Graham Greene territory here. We are in the province of literal men with disgusting fantasies and vulgar instincts. This is yet another film with a supposedly strong female protagonist who only exists to satisfy some really base male prurience. It is a crying shame that extraordinary actors put themselves at the service of such garbage.