Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance.
Dominika’s uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he informs her that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, provoking Dominika to club them with her walking stick.
After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Vanya recruits his niece for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a ‘Sparrow’. She’s then 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 has unfortunate magnetism with Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts).
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 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 already 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 parents a revered former musician and a revered academic – and she’s a child prodigy with the curious gift of synaesthesia.
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.
Book Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. She finds herself belittled as a female operative and abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent, whereas movie Dominika is more out for herself.
She spars with Nate over politics, but ultimately their romance felt pretty tepid on the page too. Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.
It’s still quite icky, and they torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an ambitious thriller that might have been improved with a series.