Following a conflicted ballerina-turned-Russian spy, it’s no wonder Marvel fans were hoping Red Sparrow could be the Black Widow origin story they’ve been longing for when it was first unveiled. But Francis Lawrence’s unflinchingly brutal thriller is not that movie. Rather, it’s a densely-plotted, punishing and often troubling watch that’s far removed from the brightly action-packed world of comic book blockbusters.
That being said, Lawrence certainly kicks-starts the action in eye-catching fashion, crisply cross-cutting between the final stage performance of gifted ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation) and CIA agent Nate Nash’s (Joel Edgerton) neatly choreographed meet with a government mole. It’s one of many slickly-paced set-pieces in a beautifully shot movie, operatically building tension towards a crushing crescendo that sees Nash scarpering to the nearest embassy while Dominika lays sprawled on the stage, her leg shattered.
Struggling to pay her crippled mother’s medical bills and facing eviction from her apartment after the destruction of her dance career, Dominika reluctantly accepts an offer from her calculating uncle Ivan to become a government operative. She’s despatched to Sparrow School, a secret training camp where elite agents are taught to weaponise their sexuality to seduce targets and extract valuable information for the government. Her first mission: gain Nash’s trust and uncover the identity of his secret informant.
Arriving in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, the idea of an intelligent young woman being forced to commoditise her body in the service of powerful men will likely prove controversial for some. Especially when considering the film’s uncomfortably graphic depiction of sexual violence in several scenes. Dominika’s first steps into the seedy world of global espionage are particularly hard to handle as she’s subjected to a dehumanising training regime, forced to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of her classmates. In these moments, she has no agency of her own – she’s merely a chess pawn at the mercy of domineering men.
As the story develops, though, and Dominika grows coldly accustomed to her role in extracting information from willing targets, there’s a sense of her taking control, using her training to deceive both Nash and her government minders in order to survive in a cruel, unforgiving working environment. Whether such a muddy, complicated take on sexual politics can be viewed as satisfyingly empowering, will likely dictate your enjoyment of this movie.
One thing that won’t be up for debate is Lawrence’s mesmerising performance. Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) has adapted Jason Matthew’s novel (the first of three) into a tightly-woven, if slightly uneven, tale of double crossings and fraught alliances, but casting Lawrence in the lead role elevates an otherwise ordinary thriller into something truly compelling.
Cooly enigmatic while remaining remarkably empathetic, Lawrence throws herself into the role and is utterly convincing – hammy Russian accent aside – as she teases her shifting loyalties between her country and the CIA. Meanwhile, Edgerton brings some much needed depth to the one-note role of dependable CIA agent Nash, forming a believable chemistry with his co-star.
For the most part, Lawrence the director orchestrates proceedings with a cool detachment and clean camera work, but proves he’s more than capable of raising the pulse when required. A tense hand-over of incriminating floppy discs in a London hotel is confidently handled, while a later exchange set on a Hungarian airstrip sees Lawrence display an almost Hitchcockian mastery of suspense-building and dramatic reveals. It’s that kind of skillet that would make him an excellent choice to helm a Black Widow move… if Marvel ever gets around to making one.
Runtime: 139 min (approx.)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling