Warning: Some minor spoilers, mainly about the depiction of sexual abuse, in this review.
A veneer of class – a deep bench of A-List actors, fantastic production design, elegant framing and seemingly authentic locations – manage to disguise the trashy, monumentally mis-timed Red Sparrow for about ten to fifteen minutes (basically, for the length of the elongated pre-title sequence). Then, when it becomes apparent Jennifer Lawrence’s injured Bolshoi ballerina is being sent to a school to learn how to be raped, among other fine courses offered, the reality hits you: this film is everything #metoo is against. Obviously shot before The Fall of Weinstein, it’s unimaginable that an actress of Lawrence’s calibre and clout would accept such a script now.
Her character, trained, in the Mata Hari tradition, in the art of using sex for espionage (seriously, this really is your grandfather’s sexploitation spy thriller, but with extreme violence) is not only raped, otherwise sexually assaulted, sexually exploited, beaten and ultimately tortured, she also is shown repeatedly using her “training” in a highly exploitative way. One bad choice – of scripting, direction, and performance – follows another, to create almost a parody of everything that’s wrong with the portrayal of women in films. It would be one thing if the film had a sense, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Elle, of intelligence, intellectual investigation, or even outrage, to justify its continual, almost obsessive portrayal of sexual violence, but it does not. It’s just an expensive espionage thriller that thinks it’s way cleverer than it is.
It may think it’s more classy than Atomic Blonde (2017), but it’s so not. Not only did that film empower its protagonist (Charlize Theron), it had a more intricate plot with actual ideas. Red Sparrow almost prides itself on not being an “action movie”, but it simply replaces traditional action – gunfights, fistfights, car chases – with multiple torture sequences, and, of course, the odd rape. Which would you rather watch?
Most of the distinguished cast, including Lawrence, Mathias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson and Douglas Hodge are lumbered with superfluous Russian accents that build, throughout the film’s long running time, from difficult to comprehend, to silly, to annoying, to blindingly stupid. Similarly, Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, playing a CIA dude (so, another accent: an Aussie playing American) seem to have been directred to speak their entire roles just above a whisper. Only Bill Camp, Sakina Jaffrey and Mary-Louise Parker, all with small roles, are allowed to speak with authentic full voices, so they may actually be heard.
Lawrence barely seems there. Maybe she realised during the shoot that this script was a turd, and phoned it in. Her blank stare dominates the movie; one could be generous and speculate that she was going for the effect of horrendous trauma, a kind of numb, lifeless PTSD. It looks only like she seriously wishes she were somewhere else. Anywhere but in this squalid, lurid, offensive mess.