Red Sparrow

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Director: Stephen Lawrence

Writer: Justin Haythe


With the recent explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the subject of feminism has never been more public and pertinent. A greater demand is being made for the increase of female representation in cinema, for more stories about female empowerment, and for more honest depictions of patriarchal oppression. Wonder Woman is one recent movie that pulled this off wonderfully with its inspirational story and strong, compassionate protagonist that brought a distinct and heretofore lacking female perspective to the Hollywood blockbuster. The inevitable downside is that some of the films that rise up to champion the feminist cause will end up being either bad films, bad feminism, or both. Red Sparrow is such a movie; it has marketed itself as an erotic feminist thriller about how female sexuality can be used both as a weapon against men and as a means of emancipation and it falls short of the mark.

Red Sparrow is set in modern-day Russia, where it is somehow simultaneously 2018 and 1962, and depicts the physical and psychological ordeals of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a former prima ballerina whose career has come to a sudden and gruesome end, leaving her alone and unable to provide for her ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson). She is approached by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of the Russian secret service, who offers her work as a spy. After agreeing to what was supposed to be a one-time job that ends up going badly, Dominika is faced with a harsh choice. She must give herself completely to the Russian state and become their tool, or else she’ll be executed. Thus Dominika is sent to the Sparrow School where she is taught the ways of seduction and espionage.

Her instructor is the pitiless Matron (Charlotte Rampling) and her classmates are all young men and women who were similarly hand-picked for their cunning, resourcefulness, and physical attractiveness. They are told that their bodies now belong to their country and that they must use them to seduce those who hold the secrets that the government desires. Dominika is made to endure humiliating trials and traumatising attacks, including exposing herself before the class, watching hours of violent pornography, and being prepared to sexually service men of all deviancies and perversions such as paedophiles and rapists, in order to become the perfect spy. Her first assignment is CIA agent Nick Nash (Joel Edgerton), an operative with an asset, code-named Marble, in the Russian government. Dominika is to seduce Nick and learn the identity of the mole.

The movie is graphic and violent by design but too much of it feels sordid and exploitative. Obviously the point of portraying such ordeals is to demonstrate Dominika’s fortitude and it does so on the logic that the more uncomfortable the movie can make us feel, the more we will want to root for her. To the film’s credit, it is very good at making these scenes uncomfortable. I remember wincing at least twice, once during the opening ballet performance where Dominika’s leg is broken and again in a later scene where a character has their skin flayed. The problem however is twofold. For one thing, the movie is so unrelentingly and blandly violent that these scenes become monotonous and gratuitous. Secondly, there is something deeply unsettling about the way the movie lingers on the violence as it is committed on women, as opposed to men. There is one scene where Dominika sneaks up on a man and woman in the shower and attacks them with a blunt object. The man is dealt with promptly, relatively cleanly, and with little attention brought to his nakedness. The woman is fully exposed and her beating is brutal and prolonged. It’s not the violence itself that’s disturbing but the way that the violence is so specific to the female victims and their bodies, as in another scene where we see the mutilated corpse of a woman lying in a bathtub.

I cannot help but think that this is the result of having a male director at the helm. While I don’t agree with the notion that men are incapable of creating great feminist cinema (I would cite Mad Max: Fury Road as a recent example), it seems to me that Stephen Lawrence was unable to escape the male gaze he possesses and that it has proven detrimental to the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film’s use of nudity as well, as in one scene which is supposed to be empowering for Dominika and humiliating for one of the male characters. Here Dominika is completely nude while the man remains fully clothed and, even though the man is the one who is supposed to be totally vulnerable and defeated in this moment, the camera cannot help but fixate on Lawrence’s nudity, keeping one of her breasts in view the whole time. Once she gets to work on her target, Dominika sports some skimpy clothing, including an absurdly revealing swimsuit, which makes sense given that she’s trying to make herself look irresistible to Nick, but the way that the camera leers at her, inviting the audience to ogle her, tells us that the film is more interested in her body than it is in her experiences.

Even with the movie’s problematic relationship with feminism taken out of the equation, Red Sparrow is by all means a dull, uninspired film. Its 140-minute runtime is exhausting given the sheer banality of the plot and punishing given the unyielding prominence of its violent content. Lawrence and Edgerton have so little chemistry in their scenes together that they could both have been played by mannequins. Whatever intrigue there is between them at the start dissipates as soon as the masquerade between them is dropped, which happens far too soon, and the romance that follows is as passionless as it gets. When the question is raised over whether either of them will betray their country for the other, neither can muster enough affection to justify their seeming vacillation. Occasionally there is a British star with a vaguely Russian accent to liven things up such as Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling or Ciarán Hinds, but there is only so much any of them can bring in their limited screen time.

This was a difficult film to get through and not for the intended reasons. There is clearly some kind of feminist statement being made as we watch this woman use her sexuality to combat the misogynistic adversity she faces and to create an identity for herself to replace the one imposed on her by the patriarchy, but it gets lost in a movie that has no idea how to portray physical and sexual violence against women in an introspective, tactful way (and I say this as a man; I cannot even imagine how grotesque these tortuous scenes must feel for a woman). The movie is as soulless as the hackneyed caricature of Soviet/Putinist Russia it portrays; all we get is viciousness, misery, and the barrenness of a harsh winter. It is a consistently unpleasant film throughout and it offers no reward or fulfilment for those who manage to endure it.

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Assassin’s Creed

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage


Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?

In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.

Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.

The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.

This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.