I am so sick of films that consist of two hours of their female lead being subjected to horrific abuse yet have the gall to promote themselves as tales of feminist empowerment. Red Sparrow is the latest nauseating example, as Jennifer Lawrence’s character is beaten, raped, tortured, stripped, exploited, and prostituted but comes out the other end a stronger woman. Rather than making me any stronger, I only came out of Red Sparrow furious that what I had just seen could be considered entertainment.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a famous dancer in the Bolshoi ballet whose career is ended by a tragic accident. Left with no income to support her sick mother, she’s quickly recruited by her sinister uncle to the Sparrows – a team of sexy spies who specialise in seduction to gain access to their targets. The logic of using a famous dancer as a spy is never really addressed, even when multiple characters recognise her from her dance career, but that’s only scratching the surface of the problems with this premise. “The Cold War never ended”, notes Matron – the Headmistress of Sparrow School, and I’ll certainly concede that Francis Lawrence’s directs his Russian characters like they’re taking part in a propaganda video from the 1950s. United in their embarrassment of playing Russian caricatures are two British actors (Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling), an Irish actor (Ciarán Hinds), a Belgian actor (Matthias Schoenaerts), and of course American sweetheart J-Law. When Australian Joel Edgerton shows up playing an American CIA agent I began to suspect the director was playing some sort of elaborate joke with his cross-cultural casting, but no – like everything else about Red Sparrow, the endless English-speaking Russians were played without any sense of humour or self-awareness.
To her credit, Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian accent sounds consistent and accurate without being distracting, and she brings her usual commitment and natural screen-presence to her role, but despite her accomplished filmography I never got the sense that she was cast for her acting ability. One of the first things we hear about the Sparrows is that they’re selected for their beauty, and the camera wastes no time drooling over Lawrence’s revealing costumes or bare skin. Yes, Dominika does object to her treatment at the hands of her superiors, but simply addressing it doesn’t make Justin Haythe’s screenplay any less guilty of subjecting the characters and the viewer to all the abuse that it decries. It was during a lengthy torture scene of Joel Edgerton’s character, coming shortly after a lengthy torture scene of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, that I gave up any hope of Red Sparrow having a point. It seems like Francis Lawrence was aiming to make a stylish and confronting espionage thriller, but like the grey and muted cinematography of the Russian landscape the whole thing just feels cold, cruel, and lifeless. The only relationship that feels warm and real is between Dominika and her mother, and we see maybe four minutes of them together. Every other interaction is muddled through twisting allegiances as Dominika starts to play both the Russian and American agencies off each other, but her plans only work because of such boundless stupidity from both sides that I frankly didn’t care who won as long as it meant the film would be over.
I’ve seen worst films than Red Sparrow but I can’t remember the last one I hated this much. I’ve sat through more sexually explicit movies with no objection, and I’ve delighted in works with much more extreme violence. I’ll even defend Mother!, which faced its own accusations of undeserved cruelty towards Jennifer Lawrence’s character, as at least there I felt that Darren Aronofsky had something to say. Red Sparrow just seems to want to see how much physical torture and sexual assault its audience can sit through, and by doing so reveals itself to be nothing more than a worthless piece of exploitative propaganda.
½ a star.