It feels like every so often that we talk about the possibility of a female James Bond. You usually get a chorus of discourse that’s vastly more reflective of the individual’s socio-political perspective that any actual discussion about why it is or isn’t a good idea. One thing’s for sure, rather than the brute strength of Daniel Craig’s 007, who literally bursts through walls in pursuit of a target in Martin Campbell’s sensational “Casino Royale,” the life of a female spy is one where they can’t rely on fighting their way out of a jam (unless you’re Gina Carano from “Haywire,”) then have at them. Tradecraft for a female spy has the dark reality of being required to use sex as a weapon, or at least a distraction to penetrate (no pun intended) the guard of a foe. Francis Lawrence’s “Red Sparrow,” a crisply shot, contemporary spy thriller tackles the harsh sexual and psychological manipulation require to be a successful espionage asset.
When Russian Ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a career ending injury, she is recruited into the “Sparrow” program. This covert espionage outfit uses tools of seduction to exploit targets and achieve their goals. Her mission collides with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is concealing a mole deep within the Russian intelligence hierarchy.
Dominika (Lawrence) is clear to articulate one significant fact from the outset; her place as a premiere ballerina is a means of breaking the rigid class system of contemporary Russia. Dominika’s life as she knows it teeters on the relevance and commodification of her substantial gift. Once that is snatched away in a horrific accident, she’s desperate to do whatever it takes for her to maintain life as she (and her ill mother) have been accustomed. J. Lawrence delivers her most profound moments in the film when she grits her Dominika’s teeth in defiance, back against the wall, choosing life rather than death. Lawrence’s incredible ability to anchor her characters with deeply intuitive and authentic feeling emotion, despite the high concept happenings that envelope her characters. The additional degree of difficulty as Dominika is wrangling an accent and conveying the swarm of calculations that are going on in her mind as she attempts to navigate one life threatening situation after another.
Writer Justin Haythe knows that it’s essential in a web of double agents and covertly warring intelligence agencies that there are strong character threads for the players and their marks. Joel Edgerton really settles into the role of seasoned CIA field agent Nate Nash. In so many ‘Femme Fatale’ espionage tales, the male foil to the lead is rendered instantly inept when the charm is on. Instead, Nash demonstrates his tradecraft by being able to pre-empt Dominika’s rough manoeuvring. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Dominika’s (Lawrence) uncle Vanya Egorov. His personal shopper and stylist clearly had the directive to make him in the image of Russia’s four term President, Vladimir Putin. Schoenaerts is a deeply underrated chameleon, tasked with nominating her for the Sparrow program with all the insidious connotations. Ciarin Hinds and Jeremy Irons play Russian Intelligence ‘heavies’ Zakharov and General Korchnoi respectively. If you’re an ageing British or Irish actor and you haven’t played a Soviet villain, then you mustn’t be eligible for the pension. Casting prominent performers in these kinds of roles has the unintended consequence of foreshadowing key twists in the plot. Finally, Charlotte Rampling oozes satisfaction in dehumanisation; F. Lawrence is completely aware of how to utilise the “package” of Rampling.
Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems compose setttings of isolated Russian training facilities, surrounded by vast, empty space blanketed in snow, with dread. After a series of films set in a dystopian future, Mr. Lawrence and Willems relish the texture coursing through every street in Post-Soviet, Eastern European streets and architecture. It conjured similar feelings, albeit in short bursts, of the foreboding elicited by David Fincher and his frequent cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth in his remake of Scandi-Noir juggernaut “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
He’s also careful to create an intimate and unflinching stance in sequences of sexual energy and violence. As Dominika (J. Lawrence) demonstrates her aptitude for reading a fellow sparrow’s motivations she presents her body up for consumption. Lawrence splays herself across the screen, bare chested with only her fellow student’s head to conceal her nether region. The camera is positioned above the characters, surveilling what’s happening. Ultimately it’s an assertion of power that belittles and vanquishes her foe in this scenario; despite the act’s intent, in a contemporary climate it feels deeply exploitative.
“Red Sparrow” is an entertaining espionage film that works because of its candid and cynical worldview; dispelling any thoughts that the world’s super powers have maintained an idealised post-Cold War cuddle fest. “Red Sparrow” is unfortunately attempting to portray the exploitation by the villains; composed from their exploitative perspective. It’s impossible to have it’s naked Jennifer Lawrence, dissected and objectified for the audience and make her feel empowered too. At the Cannes Film Festival Variety reported that Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard, Fan Bingbing, and Penelope Cruz have signed on for the independent spy thriller “355.” Amongst their influences Chastain cited Bond (of course), Bourne, and “Three Days of the Condor”; I’m not surprised that “Red Sparrow” isn’t on the list.
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