Jennifer Lawrence’s wings are clipped in the lurid but tedious spy drama Red Sparrow, says MacDara Conroy
In the era of the capable action heroine — think the gender-swapped John Wick shenanigans of Atomic Blonde, or Wonder Woman storming the box office — the flight of fancy Red Sparrow feels like a relic from an older time, with Jennifer Lawrence as a femme fatale using her seductive wiles to get results. Not exactly a calling card for the Time’s Up movement, is it?
Francis Lawrence (no relation), who directed J-Law in the last three instalments of the Hunger Games series, puts his leading lady in a very different but equally implausible predicament in this adaptation of ex-CIA man Jason Matthews’ spy novel. Dominika (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina whose career at the Bolshoi is cut short by a broken leg; shades of Tonya Harding are hard to miss. But don’t fear, as creepy uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a top spook in the SVR, comes along with a proposition: assist in a mission to steal info from a diplomat, or risk losing her dingy flat and home care for her disabled mother (Joely Richardson).
Dominika dolls up for an evening that ends in her attempted rape, and a murder that puts her life in its own compromising position. She’s swiftly shuttled off across frozen wastes to the ‘Sparrow School’, where a steely Charlotte Rampling trains Russian operatives in the ways of seduction. Another attempted rape and some gratuitous nudity later, Dominika takes to her new lifestyle surprisingly well — enough to convince her superiors, among them Jeremy Irons as a loose-shirted army chief, to put her in the field as bait for an American agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who holds the identity of a mole within the Kremlin.
If it seems like the story is all over the place, that’s because it is; Red Sparrow is a mess of plots and styles that fails to cohere by any measure. At 140 minutes, it’s far too long and tedious to work as an exploitation flick despite its eager referencing and heightened turns, but far too lurid to work as the espionage drama with Hitchcockian pretensions that it also strives to be. All the arty composure of its cinematography and tasteful score cannot hide its myriad sins, not least the farcical Russian accents.
And in the middle of it all is Lawrence, whose wings are clipped in a film that does the exact opposite of playing to her strengths, generally having things done to or for her rather than letting her do them herself, and reducing her to a male-gaze object the script won’t allow her to transcend. Not that it would help much when the plot flits wildly between the high camp of a drunken Mary-Louise Parker bumbling through a clandestine deal for state secrets, and the torture porn of Edgerton being flayed alive by a skin grafting tool.
“You must inure yourself to what you find repellant,” says Rampling’s ‘whore school’ madam at one point, not only as an instruction to J-Law but as a dare to the audience, practically begging the viewer to call out Red Sparrow on its bullshit. Avoid this turkey like the avian flu.
Also out this week is Monster Family, hitting cinemas and streaming for Sky TV subscribers on the same day. The network is making a big noise about its first ‘Sky Cinema Original Film’, but it could have picked a better title than this strictly B-tier German import, in which Dracula transforms a dysfunctional family into classic feature creatures.
Despite being clearly set in New York, Monster Family dubbed by an exclusively British cast — and poorly at that, as the voices barely match the lip movements of the jankily animated characters. (Don’t be fooled by the occasionally impressive backgrounds; software plugins are wonderful things.)
The story itself isn’t much cop, either. Based on an apparently popular novel by David Safier, the script (co-written by Safier) hasn’t met a tired old trope it didn’t want to bolster, and sinks into a mess of fart jokes, misogyny and accidental racism. Only Jason Isaacs manages to rise above the morass, voicing a suave, supervillian-styled Prince of Darkness.
Red Sparrow opens in cinemas nationwide on Thursday March 1st; Monster Family is in cinemas and streams on Sky Cinema from Friday March 2nd
Also published on Medium.