Casual commentary about political, cultural and economic issues with a particular interest on the city of Winnipeg by John Dobbin
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Movie Review: Red Sparrow
Red Sparrow was originally a spy novel from former CIA agent Jason Matthews about the "sparrow" program that first started in the Cold War. The book tells the story of a young woman coerced into the program in the new Russia by her uncle in state security. She is assigned a CIA agent and told to find a way into his life so that he reveals who the mole is within the Russian government.
The book written in 2013 was well reviewed and unlike a James Bond novel was fairly accurate about how clandestine operatives did their jobs. Matthews also wrote far more graphic sex scenes found in the genre and for additional fare ended each chapter with a recipe. The young woman who was the sparrow also possessed the ability to discern people's emotions through synesthesia. This manifested itself in her seeing colours that revealed someone's state of mind.
Even before the book was published, Hollywood swept in a paid seven figures for it and was commissioned to write a trilogy. The studios got in a bidding war and 20th Century Fox picked up the rights and shopped it around directors till Francis Lawrence came aboard. He then went to frequent partner in his Hunger Games movies Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director) and she signed on to portray the sparrow Dominika Ergerova.
In the spy movie genre, women seem to fall into two categories...Bond Women and Bond Imitators. Salt, Atomic Blonde and Black Widow are all versions of Bond where the woman is the action hero. It is only the rare movie that is done as a procedural or biographical movie such a Fair Game in 2010 which starred Naomi Watts.
John Le Carre has been the master of the procedural spy novel and his books have made for captivating TV and movie productions. They, however, have always had a male protagonist and while they've had some interesting female roles, they have not been the lead. Part of this possibly stems from the fact that in most countries, women historically were not allowed into combat. Subsequently, aside from a few exceptions women who acted as spies were overlooked or forbidden under official secrets acts to reveal their involvement. There are few excellent female spy writers out but the audience for their work largely appears to be men.
Jennifer Lawrence is a bona fide movie star. She has been part of big franchises such as X-Men and Hunger Games and she has headlined in films such as Joy and mother! Increasingly, she has taken roles on her terms, embraced risk while empowering her character and herself as an actress. As a result, her work and her choices have had her nominated four time for an Oscar. She won best actress for Silver Linings Playbook in 2013.
The screenplay for Red Sparrow was written by Justin Haythe. Some of the minutiae of spywork was left off for the sake of the story as well as Dominika Egerova's abilities in seeing people intention read in visualized colour. Perhaps both of those book related items would be better explored in a long form series rather than a film. At 140 minutes though, it is a long movie with lots of dialogue with a focus on thrills rather than action.
The film starts with two unrelated scenes. The first is introducing Dominika Ergerova as a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet injured in a seemingly tragic accident that ends her career. Even then we see hints of how she is pawed by Russian men who would go further if they could. Lawrence's frozen smile as her bare back is touched reveals all.
Meanwhile in Gorky Park a CIA agent by the name of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is meeting with a high level Russian mole code named Marble when they are interrupted by police from the vice squad. Nash protects his informant but blows his cover and in one of only a few actions scenes has to hightail it back to the U.S. embassy.
Dominika's uncle Ivan played in a deliciously close resemblance to Vladimir Putin by Matthias Schoenaerts manipulates his niece by revealing intelligence showing her dance partner deliberately crippled her to make room for another dancer and lover. The result of this is that Dominika delivers an epic beating in the showers with her cane before escaping unnoticed. This leaves her and her sick mother (Joely Richardson) even more vulnerable and in desperation, she goes back to uncle for help.
It is at this point, we see how Ivan works in state security. He uses men and women to get close to targets to either extract information or to kill them. He uses Dominika in this case because the target already knows her and of her career ending injury. What happens behind closed doors is that she end up being raped and her attacker is killed by Ivan's assassin. As witness to this her own life is forfeit if she does not agree to work for state security as a SVR agent. She is is sent to State School Four to learn how to be a sparrow. Dominika later describes it as "whore school."
To the movie audience the violence, gore, sexuality and nudity will be too much if they like more PG fare like Black Panther which has only chaste kisses and near bloodless combat. This is a R rated film and they don't get made that much anymore. Some critics will with some justification say it glorifies sexual violence, re-victimizes women and is traumatic in general. The truth is that the "honey trap" used to get information or blackmail suspects in Russia is as old as the country itself. It has not been mentioned anywhere but some even theorize that Donald Trump is not critical of Russia because he is beholden to "sparrows" who were used to bring him to heel.
It should also be kept in mind that the same weekend Red Sparrow comes out that a former Russian agent and woman are poisoned in the U.K. With this all happening and connected to modern day Russia, Red Sparrow seems as current as can be. And while too much for some people, it is based on reality. Who's the say that Matron played by Charlotte Rampling does not exist as a trainer of men and women in using their bodies to gather intelligence?
The issue of the mole in Russian intelligence occupies by both the Russians and Americans. Marble has not re-established contact since his handler Nash escaped back to the U.S. With reluctance, the CIA reactivates Nate and sends him to Budapest to hide in plain sight so that Marble reaches out to contact him. The SVR learns that Nash is in eastern Europe but can't extract him and get the mole's name lest every agent would risk the same thing. Rules for the new Cold War apply: Kill our agent and we'll kill yours.
Despite Dominika's resistance in training or perhaps because of it, she is assessed by her uncle's bosses General Korchnoi and Colonel Zacharov played by Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hands. They decide to dispatch her to Budapest to get the information but her life hangs in the balance every step of the way. It is there that she meets another sparrow who tell her that her life will never be her own lest she find a way to do things on terms.
Our two protagonists meet and do eventually end up together but time is running out for Dominika as it is apparent that Nash will not reveal who the mole is. She has to improvise and offers up a secondary target of a Senator's chief of staff (played with boozy enthusiasm by Mary-Louise Parker) but the whole affair goes badly where both Russians and Americans believe the were played.
The graphic violence and sex are hard to watch at times but Jennifer Lawrence never is. Nudity abounds. The chemistry between the two central characters is hard to measure as so much is happening. It also has to be contrasted with the thought that both are using each other although we don't see what Dominka's final play will be until the end. In short, her solution plays itself out by being hidden in plain sight.
Black Panther is dominating the box office all month and could set even more records. However, if you want something more adult then Red Sparrow might be more to the liking. There are few true movie stars left. Jennifer Lawrence is the one that shine brightest right now. It is interesting to see what she does when she is not a Marvel superhero herself.