Dominika Egorova loves her mother. Before she is a ballerina, before she is a ‘sparrow,’ she is a doting daughter. The audience first sees the woman who will become the ‘sparrow’ through this lens. The sparrow’s only hope to remain tethered to her humanity despite her training is this connection. Her mother who advises her to hold something back. If Dominika is to survive in the world of espionage that she finds herself suddenly and irrevocably in, her mother’s advice might be the only thing can keep her alive.
Those first few scenes ask a lot of the audience, though. Red Sparrow’s title character, played by Jennifer Lawrence, moves rapidly away from the normalcy of her ailing mother and the financial strains illness brings with it and into a world of violence and calculated betrayal. We are meant to watch the transformation, believe it fully, and yet retain sympathy for the once ballerina.
This is mostly accomplished through her relatable backstory and the unfortunate domino effect of choices, some hers and some made for her, that lead her to sparrow school.
It’s hard to find fault with the performances in the film. Whether or not you are a Lawrence fan, she does a good job portraying the embittered and wronged ballerina turned callous tool of the government. Her counterpart, CIA agent Nate Nash, is likewise played by Joel Edgerton with a convincing mix of charm and seen-it-all-done-it-all. The list of who acted well in this movie is not short.
Add to that the choice of palette, blues and grays, and we have a convincing Russian spy thriller set against a stark and unforgiving landscape. The insides of buildings are just as dangerous and as emotionally desolate as the tundra most America’s associate with the country that orchestrated our current unreal political hellscape.
So why was I largely “meh” about this film?
This film was technically superb. Based on the Jason Matthews book of the same name– a book that won the 2014 ITW Award for Best First Novel and the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, it’s important to note that Matthews is himself ex-CIA so when the movie rings true, it’s for a reason. But the beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted movie falls flat because it feels at time overtly nostalgic for books and movies that we’ve already seen and read. In some ways that makes sense if the writer is writing about a life they lived and perhaps now, in retirement from that life–we live so many, a character in the film posits–misses it.
What ended up happening for me as I sat in a full theatre was the feeling that I was being ping-ponged between tropes and setups I’ve seen before and graphic sexual content. It felt as if in order to distinguish it from spy movies of the past with similar plots and feels, the story is dotted with these… encounters.
And I do not mean titillating sex scenes. No, not at all. I mean a series of awkward sexual encounters meant, I have to assume, to feel edgy. We’re supposed to question our sexual mores. But in this era of ass eating and grindr, how does one push boundaries with a public that’s done and seen most of it on any given weekend during freshman year? Nonconsensual and coercive sex, I guess.
The idea here that women can’t be trusted, that even their bodies can be taught to lie and that those lies are the way in which they might best be of service is one that I couldn’t shake. Yes, there are male sparrows. Yes, we do get at least one scene that includes full frontal male nudity. Yes, we are told that these men will also lie with their bodies. But, no, we don’t see it.
The training that takes place at State School #4, referred to in the movies as both “sparrow school” and “whore school”, focuses on the sexual humiliation of women. Not just our sparrow, but other female sparrows. When we see their male counterparts, they are either aggressive and dangerous or, literally, flaccid but in control of the situation. The Red Sparrow’s struggle is against the danger of the Russian-American game, but that struggle almost always plays itself out on her body. This ends up not being edgy or ‘adult’ as it seems it was intended, but instead veers towards the predictable and sentimental.
I’m torn here: I like a good old-fashioned spy movie. This is that. There are no unexpected storytelling techniques. No one breaks any new ground. It’s hard to be overly excited about a movie when it feels like I’ve seen it before. This is a serviceable movie, but I imagine they were aiming higher than that.