Red Sparrow (15)

Dir. Francis Lawrence

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds, Douglas Hodge, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Irons, Joel de la Fuente, Joel Edgerton

Reviewed by Matt Adcock (@Cleric20)

“Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece and they will tell you anything.”

Sex is a weapon in this brutal espionage-em-up which sees Jennifer Lawrence star as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina, who becomes coerced into a dangerous high-level intelligence operation.

Forced into an abrupt career change, Dominika becomes a ‘Sparrow’ a secret branch of the Russian intelligence network where the recruits were trained in a depersonalized type of manipulative sexual training to seduce targets and extract information.

What follows is a kind of slow burn cat-and-mouse game of intrigue as she stalks her prey – CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – with a view to winning his trust and finding the name of the high level Russian mole he is in contact with.

As the two collide, things get muddled as Dominika employs her ‘special skills’ on Nate and in the charged atmosphere of trade-craft, deception, and forbidden passion the only question is who is playing who?

Director Francis Lawrence (no relation), reunites with Jennifer Lawrence after working together on several Hunger Games films and the reward is one of Jo-L’s bravest performances to date. Red Sparrow isn’t really an action film even though it covers similar ground to last year’s Atomic Blonde or the classic La Femme Nikita but it does feature some crunching violence and much sexualised nudity.

Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons are on hand to offer some classy support on the Russian side and Douglas Hodge gives good sleaze as Dominika’s Budapest Bureau chief. Speaking of sleaze, Red Sparrow is not a feminist friendly film – whilst based on an actual and disturbing use of women to wield their bodies as tool for the Motherland, it does feel exploitative at times.

The plot is engaging in a nasty way but the film reaches for wannabe ‘epic’ status with an unnecessarily bloated running time of well over two hours. Red Sparrow pushes the limits for a 15 rating with very strong violence and torture as well as the sexual content. It certainly makes for uncomfortable watching at points and isn’t a feel good popcorn flick by any means.

So this Sparrow isn’t for everyone and won’t be remembered as a classic but it does effectively capture the paranoid feel of not being able to trust anyone and atmosphere of just how depressed life in Russia was.

Thinking Material: Be careful who you fall for

Back in the day Pat Benatar sang “Stop using sex as a weapon – You know you’re already my obsession …” Red Sparrow shines a light on the very unseemly practices that the Russians used in the Cold War espionage battle – basically forcing their Sparrow agents to prostitute themselves in order to gain emotional currency with targets and extract their secrets.

We live in a still incredibly sexualised society, it’s hard to believe how popular purely trashy film like 50 Shades of Grey are etc. But are films like Red Sparrow any less demeaning? The fact that sex appeal is used to sell products, influence people and is seen as a key measure of people is a message that is tragically still prevalent, creating an enormous amount of expectation and pressure that has an impact on well-being, on self-confidence, on relationships – so many facets of life.

It can be tough to not respond to the pressure points of sexual manipulation, but not impossible. This is why initiatives like the #MeToo movement are so timely and will hopefully engender a seed change across society but it will take time and its essential that men get behind them.

Films like Red Sparrow which deal in exploitative sexualisation (even as part of highlighting a dark chapter of history) can feed dangerous obsessive appetites, but perhaps there is a key learning point from this movie: Be careful who you give your heart to. There are those of both genders who will use sex as a weapon – and the heartbreak and fallout can be devastating.


3 out of 5 stars

Related Films: La Femme Nikita, Atomic Blonde, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy