Red Sparrow works because it features the strangely mesmerizing combination of a star at the top of her game and a disapproving yet reverent portrayal of the Russian intelligence community.
Red Sparrow tangentially brings to mind Ninotchka, the 1939 American-made comedy that stars Greta Garbo as a Russian agent sent to Paris on official Soviet business. Though relatively acclaimed at the time, Ninotchka is an odd duck, with the famously stone-faced Garbo surrounded by over-the-top supporting players and matched with a dull leading man. Yet somehow, Ninotchka still works, because of the strangely entertaining combination of Garbo’s incandescent screen presence and the odd mix of critique and admiration that American-made movies about Russia had then and still do today. Similarly, Red Sparrow works because it also features the strangely mesmerizing combination of a star at the top of her game and a disapproving yet reverent portrayal of the Russian intelligence community.
Jennifer Lawrence, sporting an inscrutable expression that matches Garbo’s legendary stone face as well as a pretty solid Russian accent, plays ballerina Dominika Egorova. A brutal injury forces her into an early retirement, but concern for her sick mother (Joely Richardson, under-used here) has her turning to her government-agent uncle Vanya (an effectively creepy Matthias Schoenaerts) for help. After using her as a honey trap to off a significant adversary, Uncle Vanya sends Dominika to what she later bitterly refers to as “whore school,” where the Matron (played with marvelous ice by the great Charlotte Rampling) teaches young Russian women and men to be “sparrows.” These sparrows are spies who find what their target’s innermost desires are and fulfill them in order to gather information. It’s suggested that this could be friendship, domination or romance, but in the beautiful Dominika’s case, it’s assumed that the needs she will fulfill with future targets will be sexual, an idea her uncle takes too much interest in.
The scenes in which Lawrence and Rampling face off are excellent, with Rampling’s knife-like delivery of her dialogue matching up beautifully against Lawrence’s steely, silent reactions. Unfortunately, the film spends a relatively short amount of time at the sparrow school, and soon Dominka is off to Budapest in order to target disgraced American spy Nate Nash (a miscast Joel Edgerton). Dominika learns that Nate frequents a local pool, where—in one of the film’s best scenes—Dominika dons her trashiest bathing suit and best ‘80s hairstyle and struts past Nate, making sure he’ll notice her.
The powerful part about scenes such as this, which are the ones that are the most likely to be misunderstood, is the voyeurism that director Francis Lawrence brings to them. Rather than seeing inside Dominika’s head, we are seeing Dominika as Nate, an American, sees her: a beautiful, young, Russian woman. Rather than see her as the threat she is, he—and other men and women in the film, and surely many in the audience—see her as a disposable beauty. Director Lawrence’s camera continually returns to Dominika’s body in scenes where she is being scrutinized by a man or by a woman in power, and the camera shows her to us through their eyes.
This is powerful and allows for the film’s best twists, because Dominika is rarely what the camera shows her to be. Throughout, actress Lawrence’s expression remains firm, only occasionally vacillating between determined and passive, making her impossible to read. It’s a fascinating performance, and a terrific one, because it is nearly an anti-performance. Director Lawrence and actress Lawrence dare us to guess what Dominika is thinking, dare us to underestimate her and dare us to judge her. In this way, Red Sparrow is powerfully feminist because it tempts chauvinism out into the open and then exposes it.
If only the rest of the film were as strong as Lawrence’s performance and Lawrence’s direction. The script by Justin Haythe (based on the novel by Jason Matthews) is alternately evasive and over-explanatory, and though Dominika’s endgame is finally revealed in a satisfying conclusion, the road from her initial meeting with Nate to the finale is frustratingly slow when compared to the brisk pace of the film’s first half. The cinematography (by Jo Willems, who lensed all three of the Lawrence-directed Hunger Games sequels) makes the film more confusing that it should be. It’s understandable for a wintry Russian spy movie to be drab and dark, but Red Sparrow is suffocatingly so, with the only pop of color coming from the occasional splash of blood and Dominika’s penchant for red eveningwear. There’s also a notable lack of humor. The film does feature a very funny Mary Louise Parker as a grumpy, alcoholic foreign service worker, but she only pops up two-thirds of the way through the film and exits quickly.
Jennifer Lawrence is in some ways the Greta Garbo of our time; she’s the highest paid actress in Hollywood and usually the best thing about any film she’s in. The key to her talent is that, like Garbo, she uses her extraordinarily expressive face sparingly. Her default expression, all stiff-jaw and impassive eyes, can instantly dissolve into horror or flicker into joy, but only does so for seconds at a time. Ninotchka’s most famous scene, one so significant that it was teased on the film’s poster, is when the Count (love interest to Garbo’s Ninotchka) falls out of his chair, causing Ninotchka’s Russian glower to crack into a very un-Garbo like giggle. Towards the end of Red Sparrow, we’re treated with a rare look of triumph from Dominika. Like Garbo’s giggle, it is unexpected and appealing. A movie star moment. But on top of that, this look tells the men in the film and in the audience that she’s tricked us, that she knows we’ve been watching and that she’s coming for us.