I went into “Red Sparrow” expecting to be disappointed due to a spate of negative reviews, but I left the theater surprisingly intrigued.
“Red Sparrow” tells the story of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a famous Russian ballerina whose life is drastically altered after experiencing a career-ending injury. Her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of Russian intelligence, offers to help Dominika financially support herself and her mother after the injury - but at a price. Dominika is sent to train as a “sparrow,” a spy who specializes in seduction and in retrieving intelligence from unsuspecting victims.
The primary criticism for this film is, in fact, valid; the plot is convoluted as well as unbelievable at times, and the film is not fun to watch - the excessive torture scenes are, in fact, torture to view. The premise of the entire film is flawed to begin with - a celebrity becoming a covert spy? Could Katy Perry suddenly work for the CIA? Sometimes it is unclear what exactly is happening (although this may be part of the point) and the film doesn’t feel sexy or glamorous, as most spy films try to be; it is a slow, painful experience.
This aesthetic feeds into the entire narrative of the film, a narrative from a rather American perspective. The idea of Sparrow School, an academy that trains Russian patriots to insidiously lurk about and create chaos in the western world, could have been written by unemployed ex-Clinton staffers. Russia is shown to be a cold, bitter place where people are simply numbers, either of use to the state or better off dead. Betray the Russian state, or simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you will be subjected to torture or killed. Women in particular are worth nothing; in one jarring scene, Dominika is criticized for attacking one of her fellow sparrow trainees in self-defense after he tried to sexually assault her. Her superior scolds, “Why would you deprive the Russian state of a useful asset?”
The Americans, of course, are portrayed as the idealistic alternative, a government that cares for its people and doesn’t treat them like numbers. This concept should be met with some healthy skepticism, and the film even acknowledges this; at one point, Dominika asks an American intelligence officer why she is better off being used by the Americans rather than being used by the Russians. The officer responds with something to the effect of, “America isn’t like that. Or at least it’s not supposed to be.”
Whether this narrative is accurate or not, it doesn’t really matter. The film could have taken place in any setting, in a different country or in space; the underlying politics is beside the point, in my view. The reason I enjoyed this film is it is about taking agency in the worst of circumstances. Lawrence’s character is subjected to the worst abuse imaginable, through no fault of her own. She is injured maliciously and her lifelong dream, which she achieved through hard work, is forever ruined. She is used by everyone in her life, including her own uncle. Even if she chose the American side, she would still have to prove her usefulness. In the final act of the film (spoiler alert), Dominika completely regains control over her life and turns the tables on those who tried to use and abuse her. She does not let them win, and that is very powerful and is well worth waiting for. Lawrence’s performance is stellar, and she alone makes the film worth watching.
Viewer discretion is strongly advised. It was difficult for even me, a fully grown adult, to sit through some of the more graphic scenes.
If you choose to see this film, do not expect the sleek spy feel of James Bond with a Russian twist - expect the gulag with a final glimmer of hope and triumph at the end.