'Red Sparrow' Uses Female Empowerment as an Excuse to Abuse Jennifer Lawrence

The sadism and the protagonist's efforts to stand up to it end up looking exaggerated and pornographic; but a 'Red Sparrow' sequel could still get it right

Jennifer Lawrence appears in a scene from 'Red Sparrow.'
Murray Close / Twentieth Century

The Cold War may have ended in the last century, but Hollywood refuses to declare a truce. Though reality brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, the image of the Russian villain remains burned into our consciousness. Or, more precisely, into the collective anxiety of the West. Russia was and remains an American nightmare, which is only updated according to current events. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin returning to undermine Western governments – these days via cyberattacks – “Red Sparrow” is an interesting attempt to finesse the Russian-driven panic attack.

The new spy film is based on a prize-winning 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA operative. The story revolves around a female Russian spy and is set against the backdrop of Moscow’s renewed effort to shape the global arena. Francis Lawrence was recruited to direct, and he proceeded to cast Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), whom he had previously directed in three of the four “Hunger Games” movies. The aspiration seems to be to create a franchise of espionage thrillers with a female spy instead of the traditional guy. “Atomic Blonde,” starring Charlize Theron, already tried that last year, and was an excellent action picture, but its unimpressive box office achievement will probably rule out a sequel. The future of feminine espionage now apparently depends on how high “Red Sparrow” flies.

Jennifer Lawrence steps into the (ballet) shoes of Dominika, a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, no less. An appalling stage accident results in a dislocation, a career fractured at an early age and, on top of that, the loss of her apartment and of the medical treatment her ailing mother requires. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks like Putin’s lost son), the deputy commander of the Russian espionage service (SVR), offers to help his niece if she will carry out a small mission. When it goes awry, Dominika’s troubles only grow. The uncle has another shocking solution: to send her to the school for “sparrows” – or, as Dominika puts it, the “whore school.” There she undergoes an array of torments and humiliations that prepare her to serve as a spy who specializes in sexual and psychological seduction. Her first mission sends her to Budapest to weave ties with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who’s running a mole in Russia.

From the get go, it’s obvious that Dominika is not your regular spy. In contrast to the former army personnel who took the espionage course with her, she is a ballerina who was pushed in the espionage world unwillingly. The discipline and the expressionless features she brought with her from the Bolshoi stand her in good stead in her second career, too, but the pressures and difficulties of espionage test her limits unceasingly. Lawrence does well at expressing emotions while maintaining restraint, and at the same time preserving an air of mystery regarding which side she’s on. An impressive cast that includes Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling helps her upgrade the script by Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), whose various twists and turns are either not twisted enough or are too twisted.

Probably what will be remembered most about this movie is a Hollywood studio’s readiness to stretch the boundary of violence and sex in a mass-audience blockbuster. Like Katniss in “The Hunger Games,” Lawrence’s character is again the property of a hated government, which sees her as an object to use and discard. Once more it’s the story of the violent liberation of a woman who is smarter and stronger than the men who want to subjugate her.

But this time what’s being tested is the body, especially that of the heroine: brawls in the shower, torture in full or partial nudity, multiple rape attempts. Even the question of what happens to the body when it encounters a peeler is answered. Those who saw Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” will experience déjà vu, though the agonies she endures are more reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Standing up to the sadistic abuse, which is intended to express inner strength and feminine empowerment, ends up being exaggerated and pornographic.

If we set aside the diverse, colorful violence, “Red Sparrow” is a quite routine spy movie, closer to John le Carré than to James Bond or Jason Bourne. The book drew plaudits, including from the CIA itself, precisely because of its authentic portrayal of the life of spies. There is little glamour in that Sisyphean, monotonous work, which consists largely of waiting and expectation, with the peak points forged from stress and anxiety. Little of all that enters the film, though an atmosphere of fearfulness pervades it.

The director does not depart from his personal tradition, once more insisting on adding a superfluous half-hour to the film. Still, he leaves his stylistic imprint, which continues the “Hunger Games” line, notably the connection between extreme mass poverty and the vast riches of the few. All gold is in practice only gilding for something a great deal dirtier.

Though “Red Sparrow” provides a plot that’s familiar from spy films, Dominika is better than the movie she has been given, and the character’s potential for future films is obvious. As such, she joins a ridiculously small club that is trying to redefine the image of the female spy in the twenty-first century. The heroine of “Atomic Blonde” was still part of the old rules of the game. Dominka, too, is always a step ahead of her rivals, but she’s more human. She’s a woman in a world controlled by men, so her point of departure is inferiority that she has to overcome.

The ostensibly empowering message about female sexuality turns out to be mainly an excuse to disrobe Lawrence and beat her savagely, but “Red Sparrow” is an interesting effort, if only because of the character at its center. In a sequel with a different script, she could yet become a perfect spy.