February 16, 2018 Red Sparrow (Movie Review)
There is a scene in new 20th Century Fox film Red Sparrow where one of the Russian spy women says to the protagonist, “A free human being is a puzzle of need; become the missing piece, and they will give you everything.” This is the essence of what it means to be a Sparrow – a select group of specially trained Russian men and women whose expertise is seduction and manipulation. These spies are a breed apart from others in many ways, most notably the ability to discern the nature and needs of people through careful perception and ability to gain the trust of even the most hardened spies.
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday March 2, 2018, Red Sparrow is a high tension spy drama about a Russian ballet dancer named Dominika Egorova who suffers a debilitating injury that derails her auspicious career. She has a mother who is in need of care, an apartment paid for by the ballet company, and a very bleak future. Her only hope of avoiding utter catastrophe is her uncle Ivan Egorova, who is a government agent with close connections to the Russian intelligence services, and sends her to “Sparrow School.” In return for her loyalty and commitment, her mother will be provided for and her financial future secure.
The other main storyline focuses on an American CIA agent named Nate Nash, who has been in contact with a Russian intelligence mole, codenamed MARBLE, and was recently recalled by his superiors back to The States after the Russians catch wind of the leak. Nash says that there is no way MARBLE would cooperate or trust anyone but himself, as the two have a friendship.
The Russians are aware of Nash and that he is the agent who was talking to their mole, but they need someone to get close to him and discover the name. This is where Dominika comes in. When Nash is redeployed to Europe to reestablish contact with MARBLE, the Russians send their latest Sparrow to intercept and gain his trust by any means necessary. Their missions, personalities, pasts, and goals meet over the course of a very well written, deeply tense film that is one of the best Spy Thrillers in a long time.
Directed by Francis Lawrence ( I Am Legend 2007, The Hunger Games series), Red Sparrow is simultaneously a throwback to Cold War spy classics and the new face of it. The Cold War never really ended, but evolved, as pointed out by the Matron of the Sparrow School, and the film does an excellent job of conveying that. This is not an action-packed, James Bond-esque spy film; it’s a slow burn, methodical thriller that contains infiltration, deceptions, and stealing of secrets rather than shootouts and massive action sequences. The characters are extremely intelligent professionals who perform surveillance and take calculated risks for their country, all while putting their lives on the line in a very dangerous business that is almost impossible to control.
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook 2012, The Hunger Games series), no relation to the director, is excellent in the title role. Dominika is not some shallow Mary Sue, she is a nuanced character with a strong sense of agency and a very real sense of inner conflict between her identity and duty. This is also quite a departure from her other roles, as the film has moments of full nudity and graphic sexual content, but none of it feels exploitative in the context of the story. Lawrence really puts in work here and gives a great performance full of emotion. The film never plays favorites because she is Russian, and focuses instead on her personal struggle through being thrown head first into a life she never wanted.
Joel Edgerton (Black Mass 2015, It Comes At Night 2017) likewise is great as Agent Nash. By all means a good man, focused on his duty, but also a bit of a bleeding heart who will not abandon allies with the cold indifference the Russians or even the CIA would. His character is the perfect foil for Dominika’s agenda, and while his perceived emotional vulnerability is first looked at as a weakness, viewers will come to learn that he is not that simple and is in the spot he is within the CIA for a reason.
A great supporting performance is also given by Matthias Schoenaerts (The Loft 2015, The Danish Girl 2015) as Dominika’s Uncle Ivan. In a film where everyone is deceitful to a degree, Schoenaerts plays Ivan with an extra layer of guile that is barely concealed beneath his iron loyalty to Russia. He is the main guiding force for Dominika, and is both her relative and the man who holds everything she holds dear in his hands. Further supporting roles by acting legends Jeremy Irons (The Borgias series, Kingdom of Heaven 2005), Charlotte Rampling (Melancholia 2011, Dexter series), and Ciaran Hinds (Game of Thrones series, Rome series) give the film serious credibility to go along with its great writing and lead performances. All of them are great here, but that is hardly surprising.
Red Sparrow is based off a book by former CIA agent Jason Matthews, and has been credited by other CIA employees as a story that provides good insight into how espionage is conducted. If that is the case, then it has translated well to the big screen as it eschews the glitz of Action Spy Thrillers and embraces a more grounded and gritty picture of a world that has no interest in making itself known. Red Sparrow is excellent and, for these reasons, CrypticRock gives it 4.5 out of 5 stars.