Film Review: Red Sparrow (USA, 2018) is a thriller that fails to find its wings

Jennifer Lawrence may look like a black swan in Red Sparrow but this bird fails to fly. Red Sparrow is a tense, spy thriller that is so dark and brutal at times that it isn’t for the faint-hearted. While the action is more slow-burning in nature compared to other espionage-type films, the scenes involving torture, rape, incest and graphic violence will be like a punch in the guts to some viewers, while others will be left dissatisfied and feeling like it never quite finds its wings.

The story is based on a best-selling novel by former CIA agent, Jason Matthews and is adapted for the screen by Justin Haythe. The film sees three-time Hunger Games director, Francis Lawrence once again teaming up with Jennifer Lawrence. Both series are also based on books that were energetic trilogies.

Red Sparrow opens with some scenes at the Bolshoi Theatre. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is an ambitious prima ballerina oozing pure grace and beauty. That is, until her dancing co-star dashes her dreams by breaking her foot. This act ensures that Egorova’s career is finished. But the beautiful dancer is also a devoted carer for her mother (Joely Richardson) so naturally, Dominika will get some money by virtually any means necessary.

Enter: Vanya Egorov- Dominika’s sleazy uncle who is played by the handsome, Matthias Schoenaerts. Egorov is a high-ranking officer in Russia’s secret service. He offers to help (or is that exploit) his gorgeous niece by recruiting her to be a pawn in his power plays. Dominika trains to become a red sparrow, a patriotic, uncompromising and dedicated officer who is taught to seduce her prey with her body and perform other unspeakable acts.

The idea that Dominika is forced into this spy role when she has no real say and then lands herself in such extremes circumstances is a tricky one to reconcile. These events include no less than rape, brute force and incest and they will leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. The timing of this is rather tricky in light of the allegations making the rounds in the entertainment industry. While the book and film were made before the advent of the #MeToo movement, the audience will have to negotiate for themselves where the female empowerment of Dominika’s character starts and where the exploitation ends (or vice-versa.) It is murky territory to say the least.

Red Sparrow is a slow-burning film that is far too long. It will leave the audience in a constant state of questioning. Part of this is down to the convoluted plot involving Dominika’s assignment in Budapest to track down and seduce an American agent named Nate Nash who is protecting a Russian mole. Nash is played by our very own Joel Edgerton who puts in a solid-enough performance but also fails to have much on-screen chemistry with Lawrence. The audience will also be left with some questions regarding the different individuals’ motivations because in a lot of instances the characters remain underdeveloped and thin. Lawrence tackles her material with a cool and hardened exterior and dubious Russian accent and we’re constantly assured by other characters that she is always “one step ahead” in the game, but with all of the double-crosses and betrayals taking place we know that this isn’t always necessarily true.

Red Sparrow is a complicated film about lies, betrayal and cunning and while it could have been a fine and thrilling slice of dark noir it is let down by some problems with its execution. Some of it feels far too extreme and anxious for its own good and the psychological mind-games are too over-bearing and uncomfortable for most people to really contemplate and appreciate. Red Sparrow will leave you with too many questions for all of the wrong reasons and is proof that this bird and its dirty, risky business fails to ultimately spread its wings and soar.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Red Sparrow is in cinemas today.