If you are considering seeing Red Sparrow, the new spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence, be warned. There are some surprisingly nasty scenes of violence, torture, rape, dehumanising brainwashing (often of a sexual nature), as well as sex scenes, nudity and very strong language. I’m actually very surprised the film didn’t get an 18 certificate in the UK. It was slightly cut to get a 15, but with or without cuts, caution is definitely warranted.
Still here? If so, the good news is that Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe have crafted a surprisingly effective film out of Jason Matthews’s novel. The Nikita-esque plot concerns Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who, after an onstage accident, takes violent revenge on her cheating boyfriend and his lover. As a result, she is told by her spymaster uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) that she has a choice: face punishment (including the withdrawal of proper medical care for her sick mother), or work for the state. Dominika opts for the latter, leading to a Kubrick-esque brainwashing sequence as she becomes a “Red Sparrow” – trained to spy, seduce and so on – under the tutelage of “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling). Following this she is placed on an assignment targeting CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), but a tangled web of intrigue ensues on both sides, leading suspenseful and surprising sequences riffing on that most essential of spy story themes: who can you trust?
Despite all the nastiness that festers around the frames of this film, the overall tone is quite old fashioned. Francis Lawrence has crafted an atmospheric and cinematic piece that obviously recalls Luc Besson’s Nikita, but also the likes of The Quiller Memorandum, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and other Cold War thrillers. It also makes fine use of locations in places like Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and London. Despite some slightly dodgy accents, Jennifer Lawrence is very committed in the lead, and the supporting cast also includes small but good parts for Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds. James Newton-Howard contributes a fine music score which also feels pleasingly old-school.
With a nice gradual build-up of suspense and some clever twists and turns, Red Sparrow was ultimately a much better film than I expected. But if you do see it, be prepared for some unexpectedly sharp edges.