FILM REVIEW – RED SPARROW. With Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons. Written by Justin Haythe. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. 139 minutes.
If there was any question whether Jennifer Lawrence is going to go the distance as an actress, one only has to look at her choice of roles. This is an actress who keeps seeking out challenges, not content to simply ride on her success in “The Hunger Games” movies. RED SPARROW is a spy thriller that might be described as an intelligent potboiler. In some ways, it’s a conventional thriller, yet it also offers up Lawrence in ways we haven’t seen in prior films.
Here she’s Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi who, early in the story, suffers a career-ending accident. Her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a spy, arranges for her to be admitted to “sparrow school.” There she will be trained to use any means necessary – including offering herself for sex – to get whatever her goals are for her assignment. What we learn is that as demeaning as the process is – and her teacher (Charlotte Rampling) tells her she isn’t expected to succeed – Dominika is both ruthless and focused.
Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot that eventually connects up with hers in which American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is working with a Russian mole. Edgerton is a wooden actor and for much of the film this story is a distraction, but it does eventually pay off and not simply because Dominika and Nate hook up with it not being clear who’s playing who.
Behind the scenes, we see that Vanya being told by his superiors (Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds) that they are not convinced that Dominika has what it takes. When she’s sent on assignment, she shares an apartment with another agent who makes it clear that she should mind her own business. The roommate has been cultivating an American politician’s aide (Mary-Louise Parker) in a subplot that will have its own twists and turns.
This is very much an R-rated film, for all the right reasons. In her training, we see Dominika strip in front of her class and humiliate a man to whom she is supposed to submit. Later we see her brutally tortured when she is suspected of being a turncoat, a scene that is topped by the torture of Nate involving slicing off his skin. This is not a movie for the squeamish.
Through it all, Lawrence plays Dominika as someone whose motivation is as simple as it is unexpected: it’s all about her mother (Joely Richardson), whose medical needs have been covered by the Bolshoi and who is now at risk if Dominika does not have a new source of support. Her determination to do whatever it takes to make sure that her mother is provided for makes this a stunning and unexpected tribute to supporting one’s parents.
Except for Edgerton, the cast is solid with some major players in small supporting roles, with Parker and Irons being standouts. As Vanya, Schoenaerts, who was previously seen in “The Danish Girl,” is a plus as well. In the end, though, this is a vehicle for Lawrence and she takes it seriously, without condescending to the material. She is clearly an actress to watch and who should excel when given the right material.
“Red Sparrow” won’t be on anyone’s ten best list or under consideration for Oscars next year, but for those looking for an entertaining thriller, or wanting to see what Lawrence can do after last year’s challenging arthouse film “Mother!” it more than satisfies.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.