What do you do when you’re a prima ballerina and your career ends abruptly? Well if you are witness to some unsavoury stuff and have a dodgy uncle like Jennifer Lawrence does in Red Sparrow, then the answer’s clear: you become a reluctant spy.
Thus, Lawrence’s character Dominika joins Charlotte Rampling’s spy school (or ‘whore school’ as they choose to refer to it in the film) so she can help Mother Russia and her actual mother who is suffering from an unnamed illness. During the spy training montage (one of the least fun training montages I have ever seen, absolutely no Survivor on the soundtrack) ‘sparrows’ learn to use their target’s desires to manipulate them to get what they want, all for the good of their country. According to Red Sparrow it’s a very sex-based career. I couldn’t help thinking that if I was a Russian spy who had gone through years of training, I’m not sure I’d be best pleased by such a reductive view of my life’s work. That said, the training montage shows absolutely no fight training, only sexy stuff and picking locks, and thus J Law goes into the field with what looks like zero combat training. Perhaps she picked up her eventual fight skills at ballet school.
The casting of Jennifer Lawrence clearly got the film made, but also, I do wonder if she’s right for the part. Lawrence has a strong personality, and lots of charisma. It struck me that the role of Dominika needed neither of these things. You can see why actors try to go for ambiguous and mysterious when playing spies (so they can keep us guessing) but this really didn’t feel like Lawrence’s forte. The ensemble (which include Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds) is stellar, but no one performs particularly well. Matthias Schoenaerts does an okay job as Dominika’s creepy uncle although their age difference doesn’t seem entirely believable.
Crucially, the relationship between Lawrence’s character and Joel Edgerton’s American spy Nate should be the lynchpin to the film, but the audience never sees why you should believe that they truly care for each other. All we’re presented with is two people who like a bit of classical music and are partial to a bit of swimming.
The film reunited Jennifer Lawrence with the director of the list three The Hunger Games movies, Francis Lawrence, but this isn’t either of them at their peak. It never really gels, and the end result underwhelms. The short bursts of action are good, if gratuitously violent, but the rest of the film struggles to hold the attention.
If you’re really into Russian/US spy dramas then the best option right now remains on television, with The Americans. That’s a show that’s intriguing, exciting and compelling – all things that Red Sparrow, sadly, isn’t. A bit of a missed opportunity, this one.
Red Sparrow is un UK cinemas from March 1st.