Although it dons a spy thriller cape, Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow is a harkening and timely reminder of how sex can be used as a means of mediating power between men and women. The elegantly tense film recalls Harvey Weinstein’s unforgiveable tribulations, through men exploiting women, but it shows that in such a perverse world, sex is maybe the key to survival for women.
The film’s stoic-faced heroine is ballet dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers an onstage injury, captured in the opening minutes. Needing financial support to take care of her ailing mother, Egorova seeks help from her creepy uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking Putinesque). What seems like a sincere call for help becomes coercion by part of Ivan, who sends Dominika to Sparrow School, where students are transformed into robot-like, Russian spies (sparrows) by being conditioned to not resist the sexual urges of their targets. The film is at its most provocative when its seductive sparrows are forced to have sex with handpicked strangers.
Rape, torture and nudity (full frontal) make this R-rated release an immediate needle in the haystack of studio films, and its theme of female subjugation due to patriarchal systems becomes more jarringly clear.
The aloof Egorova becomes colder as the film progresses and her hardened character draws a deep contrast to the school’s headmistress, the menacingly subtle Matron (played with great aplomb by Charlotte Rampling), who utters to Egorova early in the film, “Your body belongs to the state.” This line resonates throughout Red Sparrow, highlighting how female bodies have become weaponized by the modern Russian government.
The film’s methods of exploring this theme feel problematic. Consider a seduction scene where Lawrence bares naked in front of the camera; as Dominika is used as a weapon to seduce wanted men from Russia, Lawrence is used to seduce the audience in ways that feel exploitative and commercialized. To rely on exposing naked bodies as much as Red Sparrow does reveals another flaw: it thinks too highly of itself.
Judging from the unique mix of different elements (camp, thriller, romance) and its willingness to show what goes on behind closed doors for women who interact with men of great power (a critique of the casting couch), Red Sparrow wants to be a deep film about the mix of gender politics with sexuality, but reverts to traditional ways of developing its female lead.
The film needlessly gives Egorova a romantic counterpart, Nathanial Nash (a subdued Joel Edgerton who lacks chemistry with Lawrence), a CIA operative, and this only disrupts the development of Egorova. Why build her up as a strong female character if you’re going to ultimately make her rely on a love interest? Despite this, Nash adds to the main question of where Egorova’s allegiance lies — is it with the American she loves or with the Russians who want her to extract information about a mole from Nash?
Another frustrating issue is Red Sparrow’s simplistic depiction of Russians, who are portrayed as diabolical and evil. This draws a stark contrast to the film’s complex discourse about the power plays built around sex.
In post-Hunger Games mode, Jennifer Lawrence continues her streak of pushing the envelope. Even if her accent feels awkward at times, she is mostly convincing as a Slavic agent caught in a battle of espionage wills. It is also telling that no Russian actors were hired for the prominent roles in Red Sparrow (British, Scottish and Americans get the meatier roles), which makes me wonder — for a film pushing its R rating to the farthest limit, why can’t it be more authentic in recreating the same country its criticizing?
Muhammad Muzammal is a freelance film critic/artist based in Manhattan/Long Island. His interests include Italian Neo-realism, Indian Parallel Cinema and film theory, specifically discourse on affect images and spatial-architectural theory. His digital artwork and photography can be found on Instagram: ali0824.