Spy of steel

Jennifer Lawrence brings craft and charm to a preposterously entertaining film

  • Published 3.03.18

In the preposterously entertaining Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina turned murderous spy. And why not?

Russian spies are apparently everywhere, and we seem to be in the middle of the Cold War 2.0. Anyone who has ever watched a ballet also knows how terrifyingly capable dancers are, with their steely strength, athleticism and discipline. Lawrence, best known as the teenage survivalist turned saviour Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, has played rough before, so when her character in Red Sparrow brutally twists in a knife, it’s almost like old home week.

The story, too, is familiar but has notes and beats that have been refurbished and scrambled enough to hold and at times surprise you. Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi. Her face framed by bangs and a curtain of waist-skimming hair, Dominika rules the stage until a midperformance catastrophe cuts her down. With an ailing mother (Joely Richardson) and no money or options, she turns to her uncle, amusingly named Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, sliming up his sex appeal), a power monger in the foreign intelligence service who makes her an unsavoury offer. She’s to serve as a honey pot for a man of interest, a job that of course goes wrong.

The director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer Lawrence) paints the movie red quickly and lavishly, daubing and washing that colour onto sets, costumes and pouty lips. By the time he stages the first murder, the blood has begun to flow liberally, as if to underscore the movie’s title. The scene makes for a gruesome tableau, especially because of its intimacy (death often comes in close-up here), and because of the blood that splatters across Dominika, an augury of the lurid, messy violence to come. And come it does — in dribbles, gushes and an occasional shot to the head. Red Sparrow is based on the novel (the first in a trilogy) of the same title by Jason Matthews, a former CIA officer who presumably knows something about the death-dealing world of spy versus spy.

The CIA digs the novel and posted a review on its website, which suggests it would also approve of the movie’s politics (United States good, Russia bad); humorously, the agency did warn that the sex was explicit and “the Russian characters are not as nuanced as their US counterparts.” (The violence onscreen is, as with most mainstream movies, blunter and more attentively staged and filmed than the sex, which is ho-hum decorous.) The Russians are about as movie-real as the American characters, which mostly just means that they’re types fleshed out with recognizably human detailing and all the polished professionalism — and the slight, detached irony — that comes when you hire smooth veterans like Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds.

They’re welcome company, as is the rest of a cast that includes Joel Edgerton as Nate, a CIA operative in Russia whose cover is blown soon after the movie opens. He’s working with a Russian intelligence insider called Marble, a meaty bone that the Americans are gnawing on. (Nate’s colleagues include a roundup of yammering, evidently spineless bosses in the States and a few colleagues in the field played by Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp with stern faces and wit.) While Nate takes care of American business, Dominika is forced deeper into the Russian intelligence apparatus, a two-track narrative that finds him fighting for credibility while she trains to become a Motherland prostitute.

Dominika’s part of a cohort that is decorously called sparrows, though she speaks angry truth to power when she accuses her uncle of sending her to “whore school.” Filled with pretty young things — all equally exploitable women and men — this is a suitably grim academy supervised by a severe matron who could be the daughter of Rosa Klebb, one of James Bond’s most memorable adversaries. A diminutive operative with a knife in her shoe, Klebb (an indelibly ferocious Lotte Lenya) appears in the Cold War-era film From Russia With Love. Part of what’s both queasily provocative and instructive about Red Sparrow is that while Dominika might have been a Bond Girl in an earlier time (or, really, just in the next flick), here she’s allowed to go full-on Klebb.

Unlike in Bond movies, though, there are few self-aware winks in Red Sparrow. Working from Justin Haythe’s script, Lawrence folds in moments of levity (a delectably acid and funny Mary-Louise Parker stirs things up), but Red Sparrow mostly hews closer in grim vibe and viciousness to Bourne than to Bond. And, in classic fashion, Dominika endures the extremes of punishment — penance that centres on her pulverised, near-martyred body — that often come with heroic journeys. The rawness of the violence is startling, partly because despite Atomic Blonde and other female-driven movies, it’s still unusual to see a woman receive (and freely mete out) such barbarity.

That may not be everyone’s idea of progress, but it’s both appealing and crucial that Red Sparrow doesn’t soft sell Dominika. There’s an attractive, recognisable toughness to her as well as a febrile intensity born from need and circumstances, including the existential reality of being a woman in a man’s world. Dominika is sentimental (mostly about her mother), but she isn’t sentimentalised and never becomes the movie’s virgin or its whore, its femme fatale or good girl. She’s just the one carrying the fast-track story. And when Dominika becomes involved with Nate, it’s because, well, that’s how the roles were written. Lawrence and Edgerton never manage to spark, but it scarcely matters; their characters are too busy to seriously moon over each other.

As she does, Lawrence goes all in, seamlessly meeting the movie’s physical demands — whether she’s dancing onstage or crawling in blood — while turning Dominika into a character who grows more real with each unreal scene. She worked with (Francis) Lawrence on three Hunger Games movies, and this shared history probably smoothed some of the story’s edges, and may also explain why Red Sparrow moves so fluidly even as the story nuttily kinks and bounces around locations.

It helps that Lawrence, like all great stars, can slip into a role as if sliding into another skin, unburdened by hesitation or self-doubt. Craft and charm are part of what she brings to this role, as well as a serviceable accent, but it’s her absolute ease and certainty that carry you through Red Sparrow. She was born to screen stardom, and it’s a blast to see where it’s taking her.

Manohla Dargis

(The New York Times News Service)