Is it The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? Is it The Manchurian Candidate? No, it is just Red Sparrow, a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, that is not worth the ticket price. This is a movie about a Russian spy but remains too shallow to be immersive. Christian Tesfaye awards 4 out of 10 stars.
Matti Cinema is gradually getting over the fever of the movie Black Panther. There are few foreign movies in recent memory that have garnered as much public attention; in Black Panther’s case, over nothing. The film only rose to prominence due to the coincidental convergence of its release date and that of the celebration of the battle of Adwa.
In that respect, Red Sparrow must have come as something of a disappointment. Its plot takes place far from the warm weathers of sub-Saharan Africa, close to the extremes of the Northern hemisphere, in Russia and Hungary. Almost everyone is Caucasian, and family bonds are often a case of remorse rather than joy.
The film stars one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood, Jennifer Lawrence, also one of the highest-paid. She plays Dominika, a ballet dancer turned Russian spy. She transitions into the latter role once her leg is broken, and is desperate for a means to support her mother. Her uncle comes to the rescue, but with a hefty cost.
She goes through somewhat of a unique training at a Russian spy school. The courses focus on emotional resistance to physical degradation, as opposed to just defending oneself during attacks. If it is not that, it is picking locks when a spy’s greatest asset in this day and age should have been computer programming. I doubt Russia would have been capable of influencing an American election if they only boasted the likes of Dominika.
Although she is averse to the lessons, Dominika is tasked thereafter with the mission of uncovering a top-level Russian official who is selling state secrets to the Americans. Her only lead is Nate, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, the Russian official’s handler and one of the few people that know the mole’s identity. The plan is for her to get deep enough into Nate’s skin that he would divulge the information to her.
Red Sparrow is one of those movies where the protagonist is somewhat smart, but the antagonists are way too short-sighted and reckless. In a world of halfwits, we are expected to be awed by the one character that has common sense.
The film utterly fails to persuade us that a world of spies exists. News reports of Russia’s shadowy activities may fill our imaginations with all sorts of stories of deceit, surveillance, double agents, poisonings, torture and death, but the film presents them just as we envisage them; it adds no further insight.
The movie is not detailed enough to be immersive. We never learn how intelegence services could operate off the radar, committing deeds such as the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter that only become public knowledge after the fact, despite all the technology that governments and civil societies have at their disposal.
The movie should have incorporated more research and insight, but Red Sparrow sidesteps such heavy lifting to treat us to a story not much elevated from sex and violence. The film is too preoccupied with the emotions and the well-being of its protagonist. The fascinating world of a 21st-century spy is left unexplored.
The director Francis Lawrence is in a downward spiral, it seems. His best film to date is the Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It was a significant improvement upon the first one, telling a well-rounded story. It was a sequel that could be enjoyed on its own terms. I Am Legend was another interesting movie, even if the filmmakers were hard-pressed to come up with a worthy climax.
Other movies in Lawrence’s career do not inspire much confidence, though. The last two Hunger Games movies were too long and dull, resulting from the decision to split a single book into two films. The same can be said for Water for Elephants, a drama where the director was evidently out of his element.
What Lawrence is really good at is the visuals. His taste of mise en scene and colour composition is exceptional. What is missing is the ability to recognise a good script and draw out the right performances.
I have never been a great fan of the other Lawrence, the star of the movie, until recently. I have admired the films she has been in, especially her collaborations with David O. Russell in the films Silver Linings Playbook and the delightful American Hustle, but I have been reserved about her acting abilities, notwithstanding the Oscar victory.
That was until Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky, one of the most bemusing movies to have come out last year. It signalled Lawrence’s emotional growth. She was bold enough to play a character that for once is not larger-than-life. She deserved recognition for making this jump all the more since actors that choose to play everyday characters tend to fade from the public domain.
She has only been comfortable playing characters that steal the show. This includes the character she plays in Red Sparrow. Take Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies, Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Mystique in the X-Men movies, or the loud Rosalyn in American Hustle. But the hardest characters to play, contrary to popular belief, are those that are normal, soft-spoken, unexceptionally smart, and multi-dimensional.
She has been dodging those nuances that distinguish the average Jane, preferring to capture the predictable attributes of a mainstream protagonist. She repeats the same offence in this movie. She is good at playing a character that is not too hard to play when she should be taking more of that “Aronofskian” cure.
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