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‘Red Sparrow’ film review: Lots of style, but where is the substance?

Slick images and production design suggest a sophistication that Francis Lawrence’s movie lacks.

Francis Lawrence’s Russia-set spy thriller, based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, always appears sleek even when it is stumbling from one scripting atrocity to the next. The opening scenes contain the movie’s best idea: there is little difference between Moscow’s highly competitive ballet scene and the equally treacherous world of espionage.

Smooth intercutting establishes the key characters: American spy Nate (Joel Edgerton), who has a mole in the Russian secret service whom he is desperate to protect, and Bolshoi Ballet dancer Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), who is grievously injured during a performance.

Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking intelligence officer, suggests a way out of the penury that confronts Dominika and her invalid mother: he persuades her to work as a honey trap who can use her beauty and body to seduce opponents. Dominka is sent to “Sparrow School”, where a grim-faced woman known only as Matron trains recruits to strip away their clothes and inhibitions and lay their bodies at the service of the Russian state.

Vanya’s bosses are not convinced that Dominika is ready to be sent on sensitive missions, and viewers too might be confounded at the speed with which she gets down to work. Nevertheless, after just one mission, Dominika is assigned to trap Nate into revealing the identity of his mole.

Dominika seems attracted to Nate, or is just her training talking? She appears to be trying to weave an elaborate web of deceit around Nate, or perhaps she is attempting to defect to the other side to escape Ivan, who has an interest in her that is not entirely of the familial kind. In the absence of a convincing equation between the ill-matched leads and Dominika’s unrelenting stoicism as she plays a double game with the Russians and the Americans, either theory works.

The seduction operates at two levels, only one of which finds its target. The sordid plot, which regards sex and the female body as weapons to be deployed on the frontline of the dirty war between rival countries, is treated with utmost seriousness. The movie has been beautifully shot and lit by Jo Willems to suggest a sophistication that the screenplay lacks. Even at its most contrived moments, which pile up as the movie drags on, Red Sparrow looks gorgeous. At least one of the seductions has satisfying dividends.

Dominika’s tendency to carry on and keep seducing even when surrounded by absurdity and implausibility becomes an unwitting metaphor for Red Sparrow’s failed ambitions. The cast groans with heavyweights who labour on while speaking faintly accented English. Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds pop up as Russian officers who watch Domionika’s progress with alarm, while Charlotte Rampling, as Matron, gives her scenes more heft than they deserve.

Jennifer Lawrence, required to project a cocktail of sensuality and ruthlessness, is perfectly cast as a deadly human weapon, but her inability to tap into the layers of feeling that supposedly simmer beneath Dominika’s mask is especially evident as the movie hurtles towards a climax that everybody saw coming. Angeline Jolie did it much better in Salt (2012), and Atomic Blonde (2017) had a better kill quotient.

Red Sparrow.
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