★★★ RED SPARROW Jennifer Lawrence hots up the Cold War in uneven spy thriller
As it turns out, the slashed-to-the-hip Versace dress with which Jennifer Lawrence provoked controversy (synthetic or otherwise) on a freezing London rooftop was an accurate barometer of what to expect from Red Sparrow. It has the nostalgic accoutrements of a Cold War thriller, and calls upon Ms Lawrence to bare provocative expanses of flesh at strategic intervals.
It’s helmed by Francis Lawrence (no relation), who has previously directed Jen in three Hunger Games movies, but tonally it’s an odd mixture. Based on the similarly-named novel by retired CIA veteran Jason Matthews, it can boast a tense, twisty plot which successfully drives the drama right to the end of its hefty 140-minute running time, and its glimpses into the cynical realpolitik of the Kremlin’s security chiefs and the post-KGB intelligence service the SVR seem entirely believable (ie assume the worst and trust nobody). On the other hand, its bouts of lurid violence and voyeuristic sex feel as if they’ve been dragged in from somewhere trashier, like the Taken films or something with Sylvester Stallone in it.Jennifer plays Dominika Egorova, formerly a star dancer at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet who is forced to quit after a bone-crunching onstage collision. Deprived of the Bolshoi’s free accommodation and financial backing and with an ailing mother to support, Dominika is strong-armed by her uncle Vanya – the Chekhov joke never lands – to join one of the state schools which train “sparrows”, a name given to the women who are ruthlessly drilled in techniques of seduction, blackmail and sexual entrapment in the service of the intelligence agencies.
In all honesty, the voluptuous Lawrence resembles a ballet dancer about as much as Ed Sheeran reminds us of Motörhead (though she says she “did a lot of intense training”), but she does better as an icily-determined seductress. The sparrow-training scenes are supervised by a woman known only as “Matron”, who’s played in post-Rosa Klebb fashion by a flinty and mirthless Charlotte Rampling (pictured above with Lawrence). She does have one excellent line, when she tells her pupils contemptuously that “the West is drunk on shopping and social media.” In order to expedite the downfall of the rotting capitalist edifice, the girls’ training involves such sordid ghastliness as being forced to perform oral sex on some dishevelled down-and-out dragged in off the street, in front of the entire class, but somehow the steely, resolute Dominika manages to turn these unpropitious circumstances to her advantage.
Cutting to the chase, Dominika’s mission is to get close to CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is the Americans’ contact for a spy high up in the Russian establishment, codenamed Marble. Her bosses, who include Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds) and General Korchnoi (a thin-lipped and dessicated Jeremy Irons, pictured below), are desperate to track down Marble. But could Dominika have an agenda of her own?
Many bluffs, feints and subterfuges are in store before the piece reaches its quite satisfying destination, mostly capably handled by its strong cast (even if they are doomed to speak with those preposterous pseudo-Slavic rolled "r"s). Edgerton manages to build Nash into a sympathetic three-dimensional character, while Matthias Schoenaerts excels as the cold-blooded Vanya. Some smart casting director seems to have noticed that Schoenaerts bears a distinct resemblance to the young Vladimir Putin, and his Vanya projects something of Vlad’s buttoned-up apartness, though, rather dubiously, not even Vanya is immune to the force of his niece’s erotic allure.
On the down side, gratuitous moments of Jennifer-in-peril include a rape sequence, albeit in the line of duty, and a scene of a bound and skimpily-clad Dominika deluged with freezing water. An episode where one of the characters falls into the clutches of a psychopath armed with all the tools necessary to skin somebody alive is really pretty disgusting. On balance, Lawrence might have been better advised to give this one a miss.