There's a gulf between the kind of film I imagined Red Sparrow would be, and the kind of film it is. This is the story of a young Russian woman forced to enter into a secret training programme, from which she will emerge as a sexy super-spy, proficient in using her body to seduce and control any man the state declares an interest in. She engages with an American CIA agent in an attempt to discover the mole he has been working with, but her interactions with him have a flirtatious edge that may or may not amount to more than mere subterfuge. Whose side is she really on?
It sounds like fun, doesn't it? A twisty, adult thriller with shades of Hitchcock and Verhoeven. So why is Red Sparrow such a dud? A lot of it is down to the film's tone, which (aside from a much-needed late cameo from a sloshed Mary Louise Parker) is resolutely ultra-serious. There's something inherently ridiculous in much of what we see in Red Sparrow, but Francis Lawrence and his screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting a novel by Jason Matthews) refuse to acknowledge it. I can imagine another filmmaker getting his hands on this material and having a ball with it; in fact, I couldn't help thinking of Verhoeven's World War II romp Black Book, a tale of a double-crossing femme fatale that delivered wild entertainment with a sly sense of humour without short-changing the dark heart of the material. The inability or unwillingness of anyone involved in Red Sparrow to crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow only serves to make the whole enterprise look even more ridiculous, and not in a fun way.
For example, take the secret training camp where Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is sent by her uncle, um, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to learn her trade. Run by the stern “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling, barely bothering with a Russian accent), the tasks faced by the young recruits here involve getting undressed on command, seducing soldiers, watching BDSM porn videos and – in the case of one unfortunate young woman – being forced to perform fellatio on a prisoner known for his preference for young boys. The goal is to mould them into unfeeling sexually potent robots, capable of seducing anyone, anywhere at any time. Dominika refers to it as “whore school” and you can see her point; one would think that some of the finer points of spycraft would be on the curriculum here, but the focus seems to be entirely on sex. When Dominika is almost raped in the shower by a fellow cadet (already the second such attack she has faced in the movie), Matron orders her to give her attacker what he wants in front of the class. Dominika's body no longer belongs to her, it is the property of the state, and the only value she has is her ability to use that body to gain information for the powerful men above her.
There’s a kinky weirdness about this whole section of the film that is relatively interesting, but too much of it consists of grey-clad characters in grey rooms giving grey performances. Jo Willems’ cinematography is handsomely mounted but drab and murky. There’s not a single memorable image in the movie. I could feel the life draining out of the film before the first hour had elapsed, and I started getting antsy waiting for the plot to kick in, but when it did it hardly improved matters. Red Sparrow’s slow-burn narrative largely consists of Dominika playing both sides, building a relationship with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) while attempting buy time and find a way out from under the system that is using her sick mother as a means of control. Francis Lawrence displays no aptitude for generating and sustaining tension, and so the film just plods from one plot twist to the next, as we wait to see which side of the geopolitical divide Dominika will end up on. When the mole finally reveals his identity by inexplicably walking up to her and announcing his duplicity, one suspects he has grown as bored with the film as we have.
It’s easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence took this role, but it doesn’t really work for her. She has to suppress her natural charisma and brash spirit, and her performance comes off as stiff and opaque, while the complete lack of spark between Lawrence and Edgerton ensures the film’s romantic angle fizzles out instantly. (Their one sex scene is hilariously perfunctory.) By the time I was watching a gleeful sadist torture a character by tearing thin strips of flesh from his body, I began wondering why I was still there, watching such a hollow, po-faced and nasty piece of work. Jennifer Lawrence has used Red Sparrow’s promotional tour to reveal that the film’s sexual scenes help her feel empowered after having nude photographs of her stolen and published in 2014. I'm glad the film has been such a positive experience for her, but what value does it have for the rest of us?