OnScreen Review: "Red Sparrow"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Red Sparrow is the latest starring vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a spy thriller set in eastern Europe and Russia. Spy movies are some of my personal favorites, even if they are bad I still enjoy them on some level. This one, directed by Francis Lawrence (who previously directed Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games), is somewhat timely and has some interesting elements, but never really rises above the average spy thriller.

Lawrence portrays Dominika Egorova, a famous ballet dancer living in Russia who suffers an injury that ends her performing career. Unable to make ends meet to support her ailing mother, she accepts the aid of her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts). Her uncle works in Russian intelligence and ultimately recruits her to be a sparrow, a highly trained operative that uses seduction to gain intelligence. Not realizing what she signed up for until it is too late, she is eventually sent to uncover a Russian mole named Marble that is supplying information to a US intelligence officer named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) by getting close to Nash.

While Lawrence is the star of the film, Edgerton has a big supporting role as the American intelligence agent she is sent to spy on. He got burned in Russia to save his contact, Marble, and his presence in Budapest is for trying to re-establish contact. Keeping Marble’s identity unknown for as long as possible helps make the film work for the most part, mainly because Dominika’s true intentions are not truly revealed until the end of the film. The film does a good enough job of keeping you guessing where her allegiances lie.

And there are some aspects of the story that offer a fresher coat of paint on the typical espionage story. Part of the tension from not knowing where Dominika’s allegiances lie is that the film spends a great deal of time pitting Dominika’s individuality against the notion of giving herself over completely to the state and this profession. Her mother pleads with her before she leaves to hold onto a piece of herself that she will never surrender, and the film plays out as a struggle for Dominika to stay true to that promise. When it gets to the point where she might not be holding back anymore, is it because she has given herself over to the state completely or is she turning her training against the state? Either she resents what her uncle has done and is looking for a way to get out from under this life that she did not want, or she is playing a long con with the Americans to ultimately get the identity of the mole.

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Where Red Sparrow struggles is in some of the details. One issue is the timeline of events, with Dominika going through her training in only four and a half months before being given an assignment. Never mind that her instructor (Charlotte Rampling) told her when she arrived that she was already behind because so many other people in het group had advanced military training, or that the sparrows bring to mind Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that her character was trained for years. Four and a half months seems like scant training to become a basic intelligence officer, let alone a highly trained one. The film is also very focused on the details of the story, at times it seems to get lost in the weeds with some of the plot developments. Sadly, the film feels significantly longer than its 140-minute runtime.

Lawrence and Edgerton and Schoenaerts are surrounded by a pretty strong supporting cast. In addition to Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons appears as another Russian intelligence officer alongside Schoenaerts. They both report to Ciaran Hinds. Edgerton’s Nash is supporting in Russia, D.C., and eventually Budapest by Bill Camp and Sakina Jeffrey. Joely Richardson portrays Dominika’s ailing mother. Mary-Louise Parker and Thekla Reuten also have minor roles.

Red Sparrow is a competent thriller that has some solid moments, but never quite rises to the heights of a John le Carre adaptation or some other truly great espionage film. Paired with last year’s mother! it is a marked departure from the kinds of films that Jennifer Lawrence has done in the past, even if she is still flexing some of the muscles that made her great as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise. As someone who is predisposed to enjoying spy thrillers, I got enough enjoyment out of Red Sparrow, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a little bit more.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars