Just like its ornithological counterpart The Goldfinch, Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow was a film pronounced dead on arrival.
I didn’t have Letterboxd when Red Sparrow was released, nor was I yet au fait with the beast that is ‘film twitter’. I watched it at an empty screening with a friend at Everyman King’s Cross, and then a second time a few months later. I promptly then forgot all about it. But recently, my interest in Red Sparrow re-ignited after becoming more interested in the erotic thriller genre. Looking back, I can see that critics I respect and whose opinion I frequently share posted mainly 1 or 2 star reviews, deeming it a “convoluted mess”, “furiously inhumane”, “torture porn” and similarly outraged epithets. I, however, stuck out like a sore thumb, giving it 4 out of 5 stars. I still sort of struggle to understand the outrage, to be honest.
The film opens on Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina who uses her pay-check to take care of her ill single mother. However, when a vengeful colleague schemes to have her leg broken, she’s soon out of work and desperate for cash. After being manipulated into a dangerous situation by her Uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-up official in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, she witnesses an event that means she either must be killed or join a ‘Sparrow School.’ There, she learns the art of spying and seduction and is sent off on a mission to extract information from CIA Operative Nate Nash (Joel Egerton). Her lessons on how to pick locks and give handjobs haven’t prepared her for the possibility she may fall in love with her subject during the process, however.
The less questions you ask about a Hollywood movie this ridiculous (the levels of hatred towards Russia are verging on McCarthyesque), the sooner you can just enjoy it. America’s view of what Russia thinks of them is hilarious: one particularly memorable monologue comes from Charlotte Rampling (“The West has grown weak, drunk on shopping and social media, torn apart by hatred between the races. As a result, the world is in chaos, and only Russia is willing to make the sacrifices required for victory”). The script verges on Joe Eszterhas in places. Joel Egerton is the dashing (?) young (??) American who saves Dominika from the mean ol’ Soviet Union which is oppressing her. There are Verhoeven-esque levels of sleaze, and Jennifer Lawrence has wig-changes to rival Roxxxie Andrews in a lip-sync. Mary-Louise Parker has a hilarious cameo as a drunk US Senator’s Chief of Staff, telling a man from Soviet Intelligence: “It never ceases to amaze me how Russian women are so sexy and all the men look like toads.” The sooner we start thinking of this movie as camp, fallible entertainment as opposed to a grim drama, the better.
Red Sparrow’s biggest problem, I think, is that current cinematic discourse doesn’t really know what to do with a trashy erotic thiller in the middle of the moralistic 2010s. Why is Jennifer Lawrence doing a dodgy Ryussian ayksent and why is her love interest 17 years older than her? Look, I don’t intend to suggest a story of a downtrodden woman avenging her abusers is some kind of empowering feminist thing, but it’s hard to call this sexist or exploitative when, plainly, the bad guys get their comeuppance and then some. Francis Lawrence gave Jennifer Lawrence the opportunity to view a cut of the film before showing it to the studio so that she could request the removal of any nudity she may feel uncomfortable with – a luxury rarely afforded to a female star (she opted to remove none). After the actor’s private nude photos were leaked in 2014, she went on to describe her experience making Red Sparrow as liberating: “The insecurity and fear of being judged for getting nude, what I went through, should that dictate decisions I make for the rest of my life? This movie changed that. I didn’t even realize how important changing that mentality was until it was done […] we talked about [the violent and sexual scenes] extensively, which was really important for showing up on the day and there being no surprises.”
Would I have rioted if this won Oscars? Yes! That isn’t to say it can’t still be a great film, with the beauty of the medium meaning that movies, despite star ratings, can’t all exist on the same echelon. I think we need to normalize not being overly harsh on a film just because it received, say, Awards attention it didn’t deserve (one example that springs to mind is Jojo Rabbit – a film that was Just Fine but people treated like The Room). Jennifer Lawrence falls into the category of actress people hate for no reason (internalized misogyny), a club that includes Kiera Knightley and Anne Hathaway among others. People pile on J-Law for being all “I’m a quirky tomboy and I love pizza!”, claiming “she only won her Oscar because she shagged Harvey Weinstein!”, when in reality she’s a remarkably great actress.
She was vilified for wearing a revealing dress while promoting Red Sparrow during the height of the #MeToo movement, resulting in her asserting it was her own choice: “It was a fabulous dress, I wasn’t going to cover it up in a f***ing coat! All these people trying to be feminist — you’re not. You’re loud, you’re annoying, you have no point.” She does well with the material provided in Red Sparrow, as do the rest of the cast. The final scene, in which we realise Dominika has double-crossed the Russians and sealed the fate of her abusive Uncle, is a devastating reveal that Matthias Schoenaerts delivers to perfection.
It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not the best film in the world, it’s not even in my top 10 list of films released in 2018. But I watched it for the third time last week and I still found it thrilling, shocking, and—remarkably—never boring considering its 2hr20 runtime. Justice for Red Sparrow!
Words by Steph Green
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