Red Sparrow (2018) (Review)

Jennifer Lawrence continues to assert herself as a serious film star with Red Sparrow, a sultry and seductive spy drama that sees the Oscar-winner become Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballet dancer turn spy. After her starring role in mother!, 2017's most divisive film, the controversy will no doubt continue with her latest collaboration with Francis Lawrence (no relation) who helmed the Hunger Games' three sequels, already splitting critics down the middle. It remains to be seen how Red Sparrow performs with general audiences but there's no doubting one thing -- Jennifer Lawrence can pull off a Russian accent (and isn't that half the battle?).

After a fatal misstep leaves Russian ballet dancer Dominika Egorova unable to perform and witness to a brutal murder, she is forced to attend 'Sparrow School' by her uncle Ivan Dimitrevich (Matthias Schoenaerts), where young men and women are trained in how to seduce their enemy as spies for the state. What precedes is a high-stakes, violent and seductive slow-burner of a film, filled with double-agents, unreliable characters and an intriguing exploration of female sexual agency and deadly deception in Soviet Russia.

If you're expecting an Atomic Blonde-like action-thriller, or Lawrence as a female Jason Bourne then you may be disappointed with Red Sparrow. It's somewhat more mundane and narrative-heavy, powering through 140 minutes worth of material based on Jason Matthews' source material. That's not so much a criticism as it is an observation, although I suspect that the audiences' reaction and reception to Red Sparrow will be negatively influenced by the slower pace and winding narrative.

What Francis Lawrence does incredibly effectively is create a blistering atmosphere that ensures that, even in the face of an overwhelming runtime, you remain engaged and enthralled in Dominika's intoxicating world. It is relentlessly intense, with a particularly fantastic opening sequence as brilliant in its editing as it is in its feverish atmosphere and tone. He executes the violence to visceral and unflinching effect, a stark and seedy marriage of sexuality and brutality that won't be as easy to swallow for some.  Enhanced superbly by another reliable, palpable soundtrack from James Newton Howard, Red Sparrow is tight -- atmospherically and sonically.

Speaking of reliable, Jennifer Lawrence registers another noteworthy performance that once again demonstrates her range as a performer. While the trailers originally left me concerned over her ability to execute the complex Russian accent, there was no need at all to worry -- she succeeds in selling the character of Egorova and you believe and sympathise with her struggle and dilemma, making her instantly compelling even when her loyalities are hardly crystal clear. She's cold, detached, confident, sexy, poised and bloody good at her job, another notch in Lawrence's character belt. Red Sparrow is a satisfying star vehicle for Lawrence, proving that when she's not Katniss Everdeen or Mystique she can excel in unconventional, unorthodox roles too.

Red Sparrow struggles most with the density of the source material which restricts the visual flair slightly. While it's slick and stylish enough visually, with the violence particularly well-executed, it doesn't quite come into its own, distracted by the sheer volume of the narrative it attempts to cover; it becomes complex and scattershot to a fault which, combined with an extensive runtime, makes it difficult to follow at times. While you could argue that it's thematically-intentional and appropriate, Justin Haythe's screenplay cannot quite settle on Egorova's intentions and flits more often than you can keep a track of, anchored mainly by J. Lawrence's skilled performance and F. Lawrence's tight-enough control.

The ending is certainly satisfying - it's definitive while open for a sequel, should one come to pass - and the filmmakers just about manage to streamline it cohesively for the finale. This is a character and world I'd be more than interested and intrigued to revisit in the future, although I cannot say that Egorova's first feature-length is completely fulfilling of its potential. I would like to see Lawrence and Lawrence collaborate again in the near future, but hopefully with an original project next time -- one that is unshackled by dense source material.

Red Sparrow is a solidly engaging, blistering and intense piece of filmmaking undone by the sheer amount of narrative ground it attempts to tackle. Despite clocking in at 140 minute, it is never boring, mainly due to Jennifer Lawrence's accomplished, almost hypnotic performance and Francis Lawrence's solid directorial style --  it's great to see the pair collaborate again, although an original screenplay might serve them both better.

Go in with the right expectations and you'll be able to appreciate Red Sparrow as it uncoils at a slow and seductive pace; it won't be for everyone but for those looking for something more mature, Red Sparrow is worth the ticket price. In fact, I'll be going twice, as I do believe it's the type of film you must let settle and revisit down the line to fully understand and appreciate.


Summary: Red Sparrow has Jennifer Lawrence's skilled performance and Francis Lawrence's well-crafted, blistering atmosphere to thank for keeping its narratively dense story on track, making for an engaging spy drama you will enjoy if you've tempered expectations accordingly for.