Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 139 minutes
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge
An icy blonde trained in the art of seduction! High-stakes espionage! Russian Cold War era politics mutating into something far more nefarious in the modern world! With all of these elements blending into an eye-appealing cocktail, you’d never expect it to taste so sour – yet here we are with RED SPARROW. Adapted from a novel by Jason Matthews, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe suck all the life out of the electric novel, leaving us out in the freezing cold with no babushka. It winds up being a mimeographed mixture of John le Carré by way of David Fincher set to the tune of Bernard Herrmann, with a heroine acting as a cross between Black Widow and ATOMIC BLONDE. The only defining trait is its screwed-up sense of feminism.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi when she’s struck down by a career-ending injury. Facing eviction and with no more healthcare for her sick mother (Joely Richardson), she is blackmailed by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) into working for him in Russian intelligence. He enrolls her in training in the elite ops program at “Sparrow School.” There, with the help of her instructor (Charlotte Rampling), she learns to hone her innate gifts for the arts of seduction, deception, and manipulation. However, her first mission involving American CIA Agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) threatens to put her – and him – in quite the pickle.
Perhaps the biggest problem in this female-driven, femme-centered film is that the filmmakers mistake demeaning actions for empowering ones. Dominika’s agency is ripped from her before act one is even over. Unlike ATOMIC BLONDE, she never chose this life – it was foisted upon her. Had the filmmakers understood this subtle (cough cough, not subtle) difference in character motivation, we’d have a smoother running narrative engine. She’s forced into debasing herself in the name of survival. She’s placed into precarious scenarios multiple times. She strips naked in front of her class in order to gain the upper hand on a bullying/ sexually over-aggressive male classmate. She’s smacked around by her boss (Douglas Hodge) in order to game the system. That’s not how feminism works. She’s miserable, but we don’t get an inkling how this conundrum tortures her psyche. It’s superficial, which makes the cruelty even worse. And the inevitable, highly predictable third act twist doesn’t course-correct any of the filmmakers’ actions.
Over and over again, they brutalize women and their spirits. One of Dominika’s female classmates is practically forced to fellate a gay guy in front of the class. She’s publicly humiliated and exposed as weak. The narrative forces our heroine into being raped, and into another attempted rape, in order to fulfill what passes for “narrative drive.” It tortures her in an unapologetic, glamourous fashion. The camera seems to gleefully relish all the blood and subsequent bruising when she’s beaten to a pulp on a few occasions. Another female is gruesomely tortured before dying. The exploitative scene where a naked, hog-tied Dominika is drenched in cold water as death metal booms is more akin to a fashion editorial on BDSM. The filmmakers then twist things, struggling to place Dominika back into the power position – which, needless to say, never fully works to their planned advantage.
If it’s not enough that RED SPARROW’s feminist mindset is horrendously problematic, the movie is a boring slog. It needed a severe thirty-minute chop to give it any kind of electricity. Instead, we get a glacially-paced slow burn that turns lukewarm. In the second and third acts, anxiety sets in rapidly over why it takes so long to get from point B, to C, to D. Nate and Dominika’s stories are bifurcated for too long. Once they do connect, their relationship dynamic is maddening, as there’s no sense of why she’s so open with him and he with her. Even worse, they’ve barely got any chemistry. Mary-Louise Parker’s inebriated character, used as comic relief, is wildly out of place when it comes to tone. It’s also troublesome that Haythe’s script has to explain a few of its trickier, more confusing elements on more than one occasion.
All that said, there are a few highlights. James Newton Howard’s pleasing score channels Herrmann’s VERTIGO compositions and other works from classical Russian composers. Director Lawrence, along with cinematographer Jo Willems and production designer Maria Djurkovic, adheres to a color palette peppered with variations of yellow, blue and red. This gives the visuals a tonal range to reflect the characters. Trish Summerville’s beautiful, sleek costumes add a textural feel, entertaining the eye while the brain is in stasis.
But none of this can save this film from its own demons. These wings are broken.
RED SPARROW opens on March 2.