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.