Monday 10 December 2018

Red Sparrow movie review: 'dramatic scenes are undone by dialogue that sounds like something out of an Austin Powers movie'

3 stars - Jennifer Lawrence plays a seductive agent in this silly but watchable thriller

Flying form: Jennifer Lawrence puts enough mystique into her character to keep things interesting in Red Sparrow
Flying form: Jennifer Lawrence puts enough mystique into her character to keep things interesting in Red Sparrow
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

There are hardly any actual Russians in Red Sparrow, just big name international actors throwing the kitchen sink at Slavic accents thicker than borscht. Mispronounced 'W's ping around like bullets and hardly anybody ever smiles because those Ruskies never do, you know.

Francis Lawrence's film is hammy and grandiose, and has delusions of geopolitical relevance, but is considerably less awful than I thought it was going to be, and strangely entertaining.

Jennifer Lawrence, who cannot be accused of playing it safe, follows the purgatorial misery of her last film, mother!, with well, more purgatorial misery actually. Her character here is Dominika Egorova, a rather sturdy-looking prima ballerina who's poised for the big time with the Bolshoi when something awful happens. Dominika's in mid-performance when a clumsy ballerino sends her flying and horribly shatters her left leg, ending her career. And when she finds out she was nobbled by a female rival, she reacts with furious and decisive violence.

This steely edge to Dominika's character has been duly noted by her uncle, Ivan 'Vanya' Egorova (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer who reckons his niece has potential. Her mother is seriously ill, money is tight and they're about to be thrown out of their Bolshoi-sponsored apartment, but Uncle Vanya (oh God) has a solution. If Dominika will agree to enrol in a top-secret school for agents, he will pay all her mother's bills. And when he involves her in the seduction of an arrogant oligarch that turns nasty, she's left with no choice but to comply.

The school she's sent to is run with miserable efficiency by 'Matron' (Charlotte Rampling), a stern, schoolmarmish female who makes sex sound like a medical procedure. And this spy school is all about sex, because Dominika and her fellow students will become 'red sparrows', highly trained covert operatives who use beauty and technique to seduce and use their enemies. Their training involves picking locks, watching S&M porn and having their inhibitions destroyed by ritual humiliation.

Dominika is prouder and stronger than her classmates and is soon dispatched to Budapest on a dangerous mission. A CIA agent called Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) recently left Moscow in a hurry after almost unintentionally revealing his high-ranking mole in Russian intelligence.

Vanya and his superiors want to find out who it is and reckon Dominika will be able to turn Nash's head and get the information out of him. But when she gets to Hungary, the 'red sparrow' finds things are even more complicated than she'd thought.

The posters and promos for this film make it look like one of those high-kicking action films in which a souped-up heroine batters the tar out of a steady stream of condescending men. But in fact Red Sparrow has very few fights, and most of the action involves not always consensual sex. The plot seems to be reaching for Le Carre-like grandeur, but heavyweight dramatic scenes are constantly undone by dialogue ("you sent me to whore school") that sounds like something out of an Austin Powers movie.

This unevenness of tone makes it feel like a Cold War drama gone wrong, but a strong cast, putting their backs into those Volga accents make it at times seem almost plausible.

Jeremy (or should that be Yeremy) Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Rampling and Douglas Hodge stomp about with great purpose expecting to be taken seriously, and you're tempted to. But all the supporting roles are frustratingly one-dimensional. Even Dominika seems more like a convenient authorial construct than a person, and if anybody else had been playing her, I wouldn't have given a damn. But Lawrence is a thousand-watt film star, fascinating to watch no matter what she does, and manages to invest her underwritten character with just enough mystique to keep you interested.

Red Sparrow (16, 140mins) 3 stars

Also out this week: Movie reviews: Game Night (4 stars), A Fantastic Woman (5 stars), The Ice King (4 stars)

Game Night movie review: 'Full of twists and comes with some genuinely comical one-liners' 

Films coming soon...

The Lodgers (Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner, Deirdre O'Kane); Sweet Country (Sam Neill, Bryan Brown); Wonder Wheel (Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake); You Were Never Really Here (Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov).

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top