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Film Review: 'Red Sparrow' is the Sadistic Spy Thriller John le Carré Never Wrote

March 2, 2018Ben MK

To call Red Sparrow's premise a knockoff of what a Black Widow standalone film might be is to miss the point entirely. Because while the setup might bear a passing resemblance, the difference between director Francis Lawrence's slow-burn spy thriller and an espionage-themed superhero movie is virtually night and day.

In Red Sparrow, a star ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself recruited to join a Russian state-sponsored spy program, after an on-stage injury derails her career. Coerced to enroll in "Sparrow School" by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), the First Deputy Director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, who promises Dominika that doing so will enable her to continue to care for her ailing mother, Nina (Joel Richardson), Dominika unwittingly enters a world of emotional, sexual and physical violence, as she is thrust into a hunt for a mole within the ranks of the SVR itself.

As Dominika's story develops, a parallel storyline unfolds involving Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash, an American CIA operative stationed in Russia who blows his cover in order to protect the identity of a key informant. Forced to flee the country after outrunning a couple of Russian patrol cops to the nearest American embassy, he later slips back across the Russian border, eventually crossing paths with Dominika, who's been tasked by her uncle and his superiors (Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons) with seducing Nate and uncovering the identity of the mole.

These are the mechanics of the plot, but truth be told, once the film get going, the narrative takes a backseat to the filmmakers' efforts to maintain Red Sparrow's brooding atmosphere. That said, you have to give Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe credit, for rather than going the Atomic Blonde route and turning author Jason Matthews' novel into another female-led brawler, they've delivered something much closer in style and tone to classics like the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the espionage dramas of years past.

Where Red Sparrow diverges sharply from the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, however, is in its depictions of violence, both sexual and physical. To put it bluntly, Red Sparrow is brutal, and often to the point of being uncomfortable to watch. There are multiple scenes of rape and torture throughout, most of which involve pain inflicted on Jennifer Lawrence's character at the hands of her male counterparts. And although none of it is particularly graphic, these sequences — such as one in which Dominika is interrogated and beaten repeatedly with a metal bar — are executed with such languid pacing as to make them feel downright sadistic.

Ultimately, there's a solid spy thriller at the core of Red Sparrow. This is a movie that's clearly been made with adult audiences in mind, and the performances from Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of the cast — including Charlotte Rampling as the Sparrow School's stone-faced "Matron" — are about as good as you can get. Unfortunately, the plot does have a tendency to get lost in the stylish presentation, and most viewers will find it difficult, if not near-impossible, to get past the movie's overwhelmingly brutal and sadistic nature.

Red Sparrow releases March 2nd, 2018 from 20th Century Fox. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 19 min.

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