By all accounts, Russia’s Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a great ballerina, a jewel in the Bolshoi Ballet crown. In fact, she’s considered such a treasure, the Bolshoi even pays for her apartment, including the wages of a nurse who helps care for Dominika’s frail mother (Joely Richardson). But a horrific on-stage accident changes everything.
During the opening moments to director Francis Lawrence’s slow burn spy drama, Red Sparrow, in a cringe-inducing instant, both Dominika’s left leg and her dreams are shattered. While performing, Dominika’s partner accidentally collides with her in mid-air. Her dancing days are done, plus she discovers that soon the Bolshoi will stop paying for the apartment and the nurse.
But there might be help. Dominika’s uncle, the suspicious and just a little creepy Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) happens to be a deputy director to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, a current spinoff to the KGB, and he has a suggestion that would help everyone. A mission for the SVR, an espionage adventure for the ex-ballerina, one that would keep Dominika in an apartment living comfortably with her mother. “There are no accidents,” her uncle assures her. “We create our own fate.”
Against her better judgment, Dominika accepts her uncle’s offer. But while completing that mission, she becomes witness to a sanctioned murder, one that could cause her own elimination. Clearly, Dominika has been tricked by her sly uncle to accept a more dangerous operational role in the world of international spies. “There is a program that can teach you everything you need to know,” her uncle calmly explains. Dominika is to be a recruit, trained to use her mind and body for murderously seductive ways; she is to be a Sparrow and do whatever is required – and that means whatever – to get the job done.
Trained by the ice-cold Matron (Charlotte Rampling), Dominika is taught to exploit the weakness of others through seduction. “Forget the morality with which you were raised,” the Matron tells Dominika, adding, “If you cannot be a service to the state, I will put a bullet in your head.”
The Sparrow program is basically a school for spying prostitutes, trained to use their bodies in order to complete the mission. When confronting her uncle, Dominika angrily exclaims, “You send me to whore school!” But there’s nothing she can do about it. As her mother states about the uncle, “He’ll never let you go.” But Dominika is defiant. “I’ll find a way,” she insists.
While the ballerina’s story is slowly unfolding, there runs a few parallel plots, one involving American undercover agent Nate (Joel Edgerton), another revolving around an unknown Russian mole spying for the west, plus an exchange of western secrets for eastern cash. Eventually, Nate’s story and the others will clash with Dominika’s, making for an involved yet not overly complicated plot.
The job of the marketing department may be to whet appetites and get audiences into the theatre, but promoting things in the previews as if Jennifer Lawrence is playing another Atomic Blonde or a Russian version of La Femme Nikita with non-stop fights, kicks, and lots of gun play, is to do the film a disservice. There is action, and the torture scenes are particularly brutal, but Red Sparrow is none of the above.
In style and pacing, the film intends to be closer to the spirit of Tinker, Taylor’s John Le Carre than Bond’s Ian Fleming. It doesn’t succeed, but it’s close. The scenes are slow, and with the many characters coming and going, none of whom can be trusted to be saying anything remotely resembling the truth, you can tell director Lawrence is attempting to engage a mainstream audience with something that looks practically noir-ish. Throughout, while executing her mission, Dominika appears to be engaged in something else, activities not altogether associated with her duties, as if she might be going rogue, but you’re never quite sure what she’s up to. However, everything will work out, and it’s in the explanation where the film lets itself down.
Once the outcome is concluded, the film engages in quick flashbacks, scenes you might have overlooked that now show what the ex-ballerina was really getting up to when she was collecting objects from a room, or opening a bank account after hours, and they’re unnecessary. A film that has the intelligence that Red Sparrow initially exhibits doesn’t require its audience to be spoon fed. We got it at the reveal. That was enough.
And at almost two hours and twenty minutes, it’s also too long. Several of the slow burn scenes don’t require the length at which they’re played. The same story would have been just effective if the film had come in at under two hours. Yet still, buoyed by Jennifer Lawrence’s sympathetic performance (sympathetic in spite of the many of ugly things she’s forced to do as a Russian agent) and her convincing accent, Red Sparrow remains the movie equivalent of a page-turner; you’re hooked even if you want things to move a little faster.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 139 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)