Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as a Bolshoi prima ballerina devoted to her ill mother. Unfortunately her dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance. Bad luck.
Dominika’s (JLaw) uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he gives her the tidings that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, so Dominika goes to the steam room and clubs them with her walking stick.
After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Dominika’s uncle recruits her for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a Sparrow at a “whore school”. She is deployed to Budapest to entrap a CIA agent called..drum roll..”Nate Nash” – yes really – who is handling a Russian mole, code named MARBLE.
Who is MARBLE? I’m not saying, but Nate Nash shares more chemistry with them during a brush-past in a nighttime park than he does in an entire movie with JLaw, who actually has incredible magnetism with Matthias Schoenaerts (the sleazy uncle with more than professional designs on his niece).
The comparison was inevitable, but Red Sparrow isn’t a Black Swan-style psychological thriller. It’s also not the action movie you might expect – there aren’t any scenes where Dominika uses her dance skills to shimmy between laser beams or strangle adversaries with her thighs.
Instead it’s a bleak thriller that defines itself with icky, graphic nudity and sadistic violence, all while garroting itself with gibberish like the stupid scene where Dominika alters her appearance with a home hair dye kit, transforming from raven to platinum. If only!
It doesn’t help the authenticity, especially when it’s perhaps a stretch to buy the premise that a limping Moscow ballet star could slip undercover for Mother Russia.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)
Director Francis Lawrence decided against having an actor portray the real-life Russian president in the movie, because
he was too scared it would have been a “different movie” – like that would have been a bad thing?
Putin does get to feature in Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel. The movie had already set the barre (haha) pretty low for me, so I really only expected a trashy airport read. But the author is former CIA, and the novel bristles with tradecraft and insights into modern Russia.
Dominka is born into privilege – her mother a former musician, her father one of the country’s most revered academics. A child prodigy, she has the curious gift of synaesthesia, something pop stars and celebrities would kill to have.
She studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, until a rival ends her promising future. When her father dies her uncle reels her into his dirty work before offering her a clerical role, which she rejects, demanding entry to the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR) – the first woman to be admitted.
Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. Yet she finds herself belittled as a female operative and ultimately abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent.
Although she spars with Nate over politics, the romance element felt pretty tepid on the page too. (Poor Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.)
They still torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an intelligent, ambitious thriller that might have been done better justice with a series.