“You are the pride of Russia!” proclaims a Russian oligarch out of central casting while staring down Jennifer Lawrence’s dress in the espionage thriller Red Sparrow. How could Lawrence have done this to herself? She’s a delight in drama and comedy, but she can’t pass for the star of the Bolshoi ballet, no matter how nimble her doubles. It’s her general gawkiness — the kind that gets bred out of Russian dancers — that’s central to her charm. Although it’s fun to watch her stretch her neck like a prima ballerina and talk like Natasha in Rocky and Bullwinkle, this is the first time onscreen that she’s a stiff.
Red Sparrow is pushing up daisies, too, from “You are the pride of Russia!” to the not-so-twisty twist nearly two-and-a-half hours later. But the movie isn’t entirely vacuous. It’s another in a line of female-centric thrillers that began with Luc Besson’s 1990 La Femme Nikita, in which a woman’s power is always double-edged. As a “Sparrow,” a spy recruited for her attractiveness, Lawrence’s Dominika is trained to use her body and feminine wiles as a weapon to entrap men. But that training — which, save for Charlotte Rampling, is overseen by men — reduces her to an object, enslaving her both physically and psychologically. That she has lost ownership of her own body to the State is pointed up by the line, “Your body belongs to the State!”
Matthias Schoenaerts plays her leering Uncle Vanya (really), an intelligence higher-up who pimps Dominika out after a career-ending injury. If she doesn’t become a Sparrow, he says, she’ll lose her apartment and her fragile mother’s (Joely Richardson) medical care. And if she doesn’t excel in her training, she’ll take a long walk off a short pier. So Dominika goes before the class (Sparrows can be both men and women) and sheds her clothes. Her nude scene is actually rather creepy. Her self-possession renders a derisive male Sparrow impotent, while the males in the theater squirm with guilt for not averting their (male) gaze.
The minimal suspense comes from whether Dominika will be able to take back control of her body, both from the State and the American CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) with whom the plot dictates she fall in love — despite zero chemistry between the two stars. (Some connecting material was probably cut.) A major obstacle to their love is the narrative murkiness. She travels to Vienna, where she strolls past him in a bathing suit, the first step in ascertaining the name of a mole way up in the ranks of Russian intelligence. But he’s on to her from the outset. He knows who her uncle is. He knows that she has been shadowing him. He knows that she’s a Sparrow and she knows that he knows, but she goes on with the mission as if he doesn’t know. She could pretend to go over to his side to get the name of the mole except that he would likely guess she’s pretending and feed her false intel, except that she could anticipate his false intel and feed him back false intel. Except —
You see the problem here — I sound like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride before he swallows poison. Figuring out whether someone is a double, triple, or quadruple agent isn’t a brain-teaser, it’s a brain-irritant, especially when the script is so convoluted. The novel by Jason Matthews is cleaner, without so much jumping around between the two main characters.
Red Sparrow has its virtues. Director Francis Lawrence — who did well by Jennifer (no relation) in The Hunger Games movies — comes out of his stupor for a climactic battle with good arterial spray. Schoenaerts makes the uncle unnervingly sleazy. As a Russian, Jeremy Irons continues to develop his amusing impersonation of Boris Karloff after embalming. I liked the sly lesbian subtext Rampling gives to Dominika’s icy trainer, who only needed an action scene to be this century’s Rosa Klebb.
The biggest problem with a movie this long and uninvolving is you have nothing to do but grimace at one bum note after another and wonder if the Russians could have devised a better plot. I guess maybe they have.