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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Disorder

Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant

Director: Alice Winocour

Writers: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron


At first glance Disorder looks like it has the making of a typical, even generic, European thriller. An ex-soldier is hired to be the bodyguard of a beautiful woman and stays with her in a secluded summer home where the two are often alone together. I can only imagine what Hollywood might have done if they had managed to get their hands on the script. However the fact that the leading creative mind behind this film is a woman is interesting. Films of this genre tend to be seen in purely masculine terms and, in an industry that is already overwhelmingly dominated by men, it is refreshing to see a more feminine approach to this type of story. Winocour’s approach has turned out to be quite revealing of how films like this are typically made. For example this film portrays its main character, a man, in an alluring way which makes one think of how women tend to be portrayed in these films. I don’t think Disorder is by its own merits a particularly great movie but it is interesting in what it reveals about gendered approaches to film.

Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD following his service in Afghanistan. He now makes his living as a bodyguard under the service of a wealthy Lebanese businessman with some rather shady dealings. When his boss must travel abroad for a few days, he leaves his wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and son Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant) under Vincent’s protection. They travel together to their summer home Maryland in the countryside where they expect to find nothing but peace and tranquillity. Vincent however cannot help but feel paranoid at all times and starts to wonder whether his condition has had a corrosive effect on his instincts as a soldier. He also wonders whether his attraction to Jessie is proving to be equally detrimental to his judgement.

The angle this film adopts in depicting this story from the perspective of a traumatised soldier does prove quite effective. There is an undeniable air of paranoia as Vincent question everything around him in order to protect this woman and her child. He sees a car following them as they make their way to the beach and cannot help but wonder whether it’s actually tailing them or is in fact perfectly innocent of any intrigue. When his actions start to scare Jessie and Ali, Vincent begins doubting himself. In his state he could very well be more of a threat to the family than anybody else who might seek to do them harm. Winocour does a good job of reflecting this in her direction, examining everything purely from Vincent’s perspective and allowing enough instability in the camera movements to put the audience at unease. Is the camera shaking because something bad is about to happen or is it because Vincent is on the verge of a meltdown? We don’t know and that’s just the way Winocour likes it.

With that said however, Vincent himself isn’t really that interesting of a character. He’s traumatised and tormented but doesn’t display much in terms of personality. Maybe his service as a soldier has eaten away at his personality, leaving a hardened warrior in its place, but I felt like there should have been something there that the audience could have connected with on a human level. Although Schoenaerts was serviceable in the role, I simply didn’t think the character made enough of an impression on me for me to really empathise with him. Kruger was also decent in the role of a trophy wife who is actually more of a prisoner than she initially appears to be but, again, there just wasn’t much to the character herself that I found that interesting. Both Vincent and Jessie are good ideas for characters but I never found their stories to be that interesting because I didn’t think the film took the step to make the characters themselves interesting.

Disorder is a well-constructed film that succeeds at building tension and that has some rather intense action. I also like the perspective that Winocour brought to the film, treating the subject with more sensitivity than a male director or writer might have been inclined to. The film takes its time with building its atmosphere, which was greatly assisted by the score, and there is definitely a strong sense of paranoia. We are never sure how safe these characters are or whether they can trust anyone or even themselves. The characters however were not interesting enough to truly engage me and the ending was greatly underwhelming. Still, all things considered, it is interesting what this film reveals about gender in film today. The palpable tension and well-executed action show that the thriller is by no means a man’s genre. Winocour shows herself to be a thoroughly capable director with a sound understanding of filmmaking and has crafted a thriller that is overall neither better or worse than the rest being made today.

★★★

Far from the Madding Crowd

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: David Nicholls


Reviewing an adaptation of a famous novel is always a bit weird, especially if it’s a classic. As someone who has never read Thomas Hardy’s novel and who has never watched any of its previous adaptations, I find myself in an uncertain position. On the one hand I was able to watch this film without any preconceived notions and therefore should be able to judge it based on its own merits. On the other hand reading the original source material would doubtless have provided me with an insight into what kind of film Vinterberg and Nicholls were trying to make. I’m not sure which would be worse; reviewing this film without enlightening myself on the actual themes and ideals it is trying to capture, or holding this film to a standard set by the source material rather than by its own standards. Is it fair for me to criticise Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for missing the point of Fitzgerald’s novel even if not everyone in the audience will have necessarily read it? Am I a hypocrite if I say that the books don’t matter when reviewing something like the Harry Potter series but then say that they do when reviewing a film like Jane Eyre? Am I expected to familiarise myself with the themes, story and characters of Madame Bovary in order to develop an informed judgement of Sophie Barthes’ upcoming adaptation? I’m not sure if there is a simple answer to these questions. The question of the adaptation has always seemed like a grey area to me so I think I’ll have to proceed cautiously, share my own personal experience of this film, and hope that my ignorance does not prove to be a burden.

The protagonist of Far from the Madding Crowd is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), the headstrong farmer with a fierce will who prides herself on her self-reliance and independence. When she inherits a wealthy and prosperous farm, she shows absolutely no intention of settling down to enjoy a life of comfort and leisure. She instead intends to remain in the thick of it and run her farm herself. Over the course of the film she attracts the attention of three vastly different suitors who offer three vastly different lives for her. There is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the humble sheep farmer who promises her a quiet but fulfilling life; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the wealthy landowner who promises her a life of security and comfort; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the handsome sergeant who promises her a life of excitement and adventure. Bathsheba is a woman who has never dreamed of settling down and has no desire to be tamed by a husband. However the advances of these three men awaken feelings of passion and ambivalence within her as she is faced with the agonies of choice and of her own conflicted feelings.

Carey Mulligan was born to do period dramas and is on top form as the indomitable Bathsheba. She brings a lot of spirit to the role of a woman who defies the conventions of what a Victorian woman was expected to be. Bathsheba refuses to define or measure herself by other peoples’ standards, she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and she harbours a passionate and spirited nature that cannot be tempered. However her pride proves to be as much of a weakness as it is a strength as she finds herself unprepared for the effects that falling in love would prove to have on her will and judgement. Over the course of her romantic journey she does make mistakes and she does get hurt, but through it all she never allows these adversities to defeat her. Her character displays a strong sense of resilience and determination as she grows and learns more about herself and about the nature of love.

The three men of Bathsheba’s life are all portrayed impeccably by their actors and each one of them forms a compelling bond with her. Oak is a humble, soft-spoken man with a quiet dignity about him. He is the one out of the suitors who is most like Bathsheba and who understands her best, but he also understands that she is of a higher and nobler class than him and has resigned himself to the prospect of being nothing more than her faithful farmhand. Boldwood is a reclusive man who at first appears devoid of feeling. The beauty and kindness of Bathsheba awakens a romantic temperament that he had either lost or repressed long ago and he becomes determined to win her heart. Troy is a dashing, reckless soldier with a wild and enflamed passion that he directs towards Bathsheba. She finds herself attracted to his confidence and his daring nature and finds the danger he poses to be exhilarating. All three men bring out different sides of Bathsheba that conflict with one another as she attempts to make sense of her emotions.

The nature of love is discussed and explored by Bathsheba as she attempts to discover what exactly it is she wants. Falling in love was a prospect that she never intended to happen to her and she soon finds herself doubting and questioning her own judgement and feelings. What could easily have been a feeble tale of a woman discovering that she needs a man in her life to make her happy instead depicts a fascinating and emotional journey of romance, passion and self-discovery. As Bathsheba endures the pains, hardships and heartbreaks of love, she finds within herself the will to survive and persevere. I still don’t know whether that was the idea behind Hardy’s novel, but regardless it made for an enjoyable and emotional film with strong performances, beautiful music and stunning cinematography.

★★★★★