Jennifer Lawrence scores points for taking on challenging parts instead of coasting on star-power, as she easily could. But does that mean we have to watch her being abused and subjected to unrelenting torture? I vote “no.” That’s not to label Red Sparrow a dud. Based on a best-selling novel by former CIA man Jason Matthews, it’s a twist-laden espionage tale shot on interesting locations in Budapest (filling in for Moscow), London, and Bratislava. A formidable cast is led by Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenarts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, and Bill Camp.
Then there’s the always-watchable Lawrence, playing a Russian ballerina whose career is cut short after an accident on stage. This prompts her uncle (Schoenarts) to recruit her for a rigorous spy training program. It means using her sexual attraction to seduce targeted victims, setting herself up for possible rape if necessary. Needless to say, this is dangerous stuff and there are serious repercussions. CIA operative Joel Edgerton knows this all too well.
The intrigues are many—perhaps too many—in this two-hour and twenty-minute film, which juggles multiple storylines and complex relationships. As the plot thickens we are asked to bear witness to scenes of extreme violence and almost unbearable torture. These escalating sequences wore me down to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the movie’s storytelling strengths.
What’s more, Lawrence’s character is ice-cold, as she must be to survive. That makes it difficult to care about her, even though she is clearly a pawn in this game. The fact that she has exceptional survival skills is supposed to make up for the film’s abundant and graphic sex scenes. Her frequent nudity is organic to the story, unlike the naked bodies that turn up in arbitrary fashion on cable TV. Titillation is not the objective here. Director Francis Lawrence worked closely with Lawrence (whom he directed in the last two Hunger Games installments) to ensure that the actress approved each shot.
That’s all well and good, but I left Red Sparrow with no sense of satisfaction. I’m not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be: espionage is a dirty business? Don’t trust anyone, especially in Russia? Powerful men are often pigs, easily undone by a seductive woman? Don’t get mad, get even? Take your pick: they all apply, but I’d prefer to get these messages in a movie that didn’t make me feel as if I, too, had been victimized.