The art of espionage is often characterized by cunning deceit, quick wit and an undeniable sex appeal. Mix this with the sharp contrast of Cold War Russia, often portrayed by American mistrust and a take-no-prisoners mentality, and you get Jennifer Lawrence’s newest film “Red Sparrow.”
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her sick mother and performs as a professional ballerina. When her co-star injures her in what seems like an accident, Dominika is forced to quit the company and find the financial means to take care of her mother elsewhere. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a prominent member of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, convinces her to seduce a target with valuable information in exchange for the money to care for her mother. When this seduction ends in rape and assasination, the SVR determines she knows too much and gives her the choice of death or joining the elusive Sparrow spy program.
Dominika becomes a Sparrow and is sent to a school where she is taught the art of seduction and emotional detachment so that the government can use their bodies as a means to extort information. In this way, Dominika is not the stereotypical sexy combative spy, but rather, just a spy who has sex and defends herself when needed. From here, she gets an assignment to track down a Russian mole working with the Americans, experiences some distilled romance and tries to find her place as an independent woman despite having no control over her career, body and emotions.
The plot’s labyrinthine structure and overtly sexualized nature makes for a complicated narrative and undercooked characters. Because the audience struggles to follow the plot, character’s emotions and decisions are a secondary concern. We barely know whose side each character is on.
What makes an espionage film appealing to audiences is that we are introduced to the mind of a double agent; we are exposed to that which the government is not. In this way, the audience becomes spies themselves. However, in “Red Sparrow,” we are just as lost and confused as the Russian and American governments. Character motivations range from lackluster to overly complex, and this is largely because of the elongated plot and in some instances, unnecessary gore and sex.
What the movie lacks in character development and concise storytelling, it makes up for with beautiful costumes and impressive wide-angle shots. Dominika’s ballet costumes, her beautiful red dress and even her ever-changing hair lends her the perfect essence of a seductive enchantress and disadvantaged revenge seeker.
Her makeup also gives her eyes an entirely enticing look — an effective counter to the sleek suits and piercing gazes of more traditional spy films. The constant travel and beautiful shots of Budapest, London and Russia are a great way to contrast the disgusting emotional trauma Dominika goes through.
Additionally, in an age of heightened tension between the United States and Russia, it’s timely to see a film go back to the roots of our contemporary conflict. Still, history buffs might be turned off, as the film’s Cold War setting does not address the technological race that many affiliate with the period; the few bits of technology at Dominika’s disposal are unimpressive at best. Nevertheless, the film still gets back to the root of the Cold War — international competition and ongoing aggression.
The art of espionage is a hard thing to master in film and keeping that in mind, “Red Sparrow” does a lot of things right. However, for a film that was two hours and 20 minutes long, it could have had far less scenes of sexual abuse and torture, and far more scenes clarifying the plot’s subtleties. Ultimately, the film stumbles amongst other spy films, but itz soars when it comes to capturing beautiful imagery.
“Red Sparrow” opens at UA Berkeley 7 on Thursday.
Contact Samantha Banchik at [email protected].