Red Sparrow seems a trifle confused. It wants to suggest some Cold War Soviet works of evil, but it is also set in very present-day Putin Russia. What starts out as a potentially good espionage story soon collapses into tedium, done in by its own pretentiousness.
After a deliberate accident has injured ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), she needs to find something that will help finance her mother's care. Enter her Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who recruits her into 'Sparrow School'.
Here, she will learn the art of seduction, luring men (and potentially women) into compromising positions in exchange for their secrets. She is the total property of The State, where she is expected to do as she is told, even if it means stripping off at the command of the dour Matron (Charlotte Rampling). However, 'Katya' as she is now known, won't bend or bend over easily.
Nevertheless, 'Katya' now has been given an assignment. It is Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who managed to escape Russia when his cover as a CIA operative was blown. The Russians are desperate to find his mole, named 'Marble', who is very high up. 'Marble' will not talk to anyone except Nash, but Nash is disliked by his higher-ups.
It's decided he will attempt to contact Marble and get him to agree to a new agent, and Dominika/Katya will in turn seduce Nash to get him to tell her who 'Marble' is. She is given the name 'Katerina' as her cover, but she finds it easier to lure Nate by being 'Dominika'.
At this point, I'd like to point out that our main character has been given three names but opts to use her own.
Nate and Dominika begin their odd dance as antagonists and lovers, but she faces dangers from both within and without. Nate thinks Dominika can be turned into a double agent, and frankly by this point things become extremely convoluted.
Not necessarily impossible to follow, but extremely odd. There are double-crosses, closeted staffers and 'shocking' revelations and twists that aren't shocking.
Eventually, Dominika manages to outwit everyone, 'Marble' reveals himself but still manages to be safe, and a potential sequel is set up.
For those of you more interested in the fact that J-Law does her first nudity in Red Sparrow than in anything, the first time 'we saw her boobs' is forty-five minutes into the film. It isn't as if Lawrence isn't seen au naturale in Red Sparrow prior to forty-five minutes. It's just that she is seen from behind. It's only when she taunts the male Sparrow who tried to rape her that we see her totally nude when she confronts him in front of the other Sparrows.
I have mentioned before that my mother has the most succinct reviews, far better than mine. her comments on Gravity (two hours of Sandra Bullock crashing into things) and Grey Gardens (two crazy old women living in filth) are perfect. For Red Sparrow, her main comment was 'She gets beaten up quite a lot', and it is so true.
Perhaps director Francis Lawrence (no relation) and screenwriter Justin Haythe thought they were making a film about female empowerment. If they did, they misjudged badly. Red Sparrow is more obsessed with the various ways to brutalize, beat up and abuse Dominika/Katya/Katerina than it is in showing her as a strong character.
She is nearly raped twice, assaulted, tortured, and threatened with violence repeatedly. I think prisoners of war received better treatment. Few films seem to almost revel in the brutality towards their main character than this one.
Moreover, the adaptation of Jason Matthews' novel becomes both convoluted and shockingly stilted.
For example, Lawrence's frenemy Marta (Thekla Reuten) is killed and left in the bathtub for Dominika to discover. For some time, I thought it was part of an elaborate plan to trick Dominika to reveal she was now in cahoots with the CIA, for I really didn't get why Marta was killed. There was the issue of her perhaps turning on the Russians to run off with her American lover, an aide to a powerful Senator, but this information was found and then forgotten.
I either didn't see or remember if this is the case, how the Russians found this out, let alone keep the inept Dominika alive. It isn't as if Uncle Ivan had much interest in his niece.
There is simply no connection between Lawrence and Edgerton. Both looked bored and uninterested as Dominika and Nate. They seemed disinterested in any high stakes their characters had, and there was such a lack of connection between them that the idea that these two could be sexually attracted to each other, let alone in love, is downright laughable.
As a side note, while this is not his fault I could not help but notice Edgerton's dominant nose in the film. I cannot say why this became a focal point of Red Sparrow, but it did.
The issue with names seems a curious one. Not only does our main character undergo three names that play no role in the plot, but 'Nate Nash' seems to be a trifle silly. Even the mole's name, 'Marble', seems apt for jokes. Why no one mentioned that 'Nate has lost his Marble' I'll never understand.
Actually, no one has a reaction, making things look so forced and artificial.
I'll give Lawrence credit for her performance. She was good with her determined Russian accent, even if she was emotionless for much of the film. I think that was the point, so I'm not going to press matters.
Edgerton, however, should have had some emotion, but not even in the love scene did he muster any interest. He either is attempting a Sam Worthington impersonation or he simply cannot act. Ciaran Hinds, as the head of the Russian spy agency, appeared to do nothing more than make faces, but to his credit Schoenaerts managed to make Uncle Ivan interesting even if at times it slipped into 'Soviet spy caricature'.
I give credit also to Rampling and Irons, both underused, for being more interesting than most of the film.
You can tell Red Sparrow's serious intentions because so many of the characters have whispered conversations even when they are alone and no one is actually spying on them. The film loses steam by the time Dominika and Nate meet, with the 'Spy vs. Spy' bits dragging, leaving one feeling bored by all this.
I would recommend you spare yourself Red Sparrow.