Considering that Jennifer Lawrence’s history in the action genre has centered on two long-running, highly successful franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games) built around characters whose personalities and inner workings barely scratch the surface, I was genuinely surprised watching Red Sparrow to discover a richly drawn central figure whose motivations and tortured soul take center stage. Lawrence is allowed to let her rich talents as an actor (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) breathe life into a character that might have otherwise been played as shallow and far less interesting.
Working again with director Francis Lawrence (who did The Hunger Games films Catching Fire and the two-part Mockingjay), from a screenplay by Justin Haythe (based on the Jason Matthews novel), the actress plays Dominika Egorova, a talented Russian ballerina with a sick mother (Joely Richardson), who receives state-sponsored medical care thanks to her daughter’s prestige at the Bolshoi Ballet. But when a stomach-turning injury ends her career, the continuation of her mother’s care (and their housing) becomes uncertain.
It just so happens that Dominika’s Uncle Vanya (played by the great Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts from The Danish Girl) is a top-level man in Russian intelligence. He offers her an opportunity to work in a secret program designed to train young men and women to use their bodies and minds as tools in information gathering. What seems like a way to save her mother’s life effectively turns into Dominika selling her soul and going through a brutal, sadistic training program (run by a steely matron played by Charlotte Rampling, of course). Even though she must endure all manner of indignity in order to prove herself worthy of the Sparrow School, she finds small ways not to completely play into the sheer manipulation of it all, and the resulting agent that she becomes is stronger and more dangerous than any that have come before her.
And that’s just the first part of Red Sparrow, before we even get into the actual spy stuff, which illustrates just how Dominika uses her mind and body seduction techniques to get close to targets. This includes CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is convinced she’s interested in turning tail and coming to work for Uncle Sam, possibly to replace or enhance a mole he already has in the Russian government. Without giving away specific plot details or the finely crafted climax, I will say much of the film has us wondering which side of this game Dominika is playing. Or perhaps she’s playing both sides, just waiting to see which one will let her live an existence free of demeaning behavior. Edgerton’s treatment of Nash is nicely balanced—he sees an opportunity to pull a highly trained spy onto his side, but he also genuinely cares about this woman, being somewhat informed about what she went through to acquire her talents.
There are some fun, hammy supporting performances from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, and Bill Camp, all of whom play a variety of spy types for one side or the other. There’s also an unexpectedly bizarre turn by Mary-Louise Parker, a target of another Sparrow, who is on the verge of giving away U.S. secrets. She’s every kind of unhinged in this role, and I still found her character compelling and hilarious.
One of the big reasons I admire Red Sparrow is because of what it’s not. This is no high-energy action piece, front loaded with chases, explosions and martial arts like last year’s Atomic Blonde. Like Lawrence herself, the film is delivered in measured doses. Each new scene demands a specific, calculated mood in order to accomplish what it sets out to do, which more often than not is about Dominika convincing someone that she can be trusted, which of course she absolutely cannot be. She blends fact and fiction to spin brilliant yarns about her tragic life, but it’s that exact training that allows her (and her devoted mother) to survive from day to day.
Lest you think this story is set during the Cold War, think again. Although it bears many of the tropes of novels by the likes of John le Carré, this is a tale told in modern Russia, which makes the fact that such tactics are still being used seem all the more sinister. But as the beloved Matron explains, some people in the government don’t believe that such elemental tactics should ever become extinct.
So much of Red Sparrow takes place along a razor’s edge, and Lawrence (giving easily her best performance to date) is utterly convincing as a down but far from out victim of so many men who have coveted her over much of her lifetime. Dominika sees 10 moves ahead and is the queen of improvising when a plan goes sideways. You can always see her thinking but almost never guess what she’s going to do next. These agents are all creations of Putin (who is never actually mentioned in the film), all looking for ways to take each other out and advance without seeming to care whether they do. Red Sparrow is a smart, cunning, nasty piece of work that will mess with your head and impress you with its ability to do so.