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Red Sparrow, Review: Spread-eagled

Red Sparrow, Review: Spread-eagled

Think of an American film that is 158 minutes long--probably 150 minutes in a country like India, which has a reasonably strict censorship regime—and then read the following lines, found on the 20th Century Fox website, “As for the filming of the scenes and working with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, she (Jennifer Lawrence) added: We talked about it extensively, which was really important for showing up on the day and there being no surprises.” The scenes she is referring to are the ones where she is either shown nude or having sex. One scene sees Lawrence strip completely naked and lie spread-eagled on a table, her character taking part in a seduction training program for Russian spies. Sorry, audiences in India, the Central Board of Film Certification couldn’t possibly allow any naked girl to be shown spread-eagled or sparrow-eagled, and it matters not that her name happens to be Jennifer Lawrence, alias Dominatrix...oops, Dominika.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a devoted daughter, determined to nurse and support her old and ailing mother (Joely Richardson) at all costs. A prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, she suffers a career-ending injury during a performance. Dominika and her mother face a bleak and uncertain future. Suddenly, she finds herself manipulated by her paternal uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) into joining the Russian Secret Service, of which he is the Deputy Chief. She is immediately despatched to Sparrow School in the snow-clad mountains. This ‘school’ is a ‘service’ that trains ‘exceptional’ young people like her to use their bodies and minds as weapons.

After enduring the perverse and sadistic training process, she emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow the program has ever produced. But to the dismay of her handlers, her first mission, targetting a C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who handles the Agency’s most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence, a mole, suffers a setback, because he is taken off by his bosses, for endangering an operation. So, she is sent to seduce a Russian (Douglas Hodge) who, her uncle says, is a traitor. While he is about to ravish her, he is strangled in cold blood, by Egorov’s men.

The action moves from Russia to Austria to Hungary, as she follows the CIA target and finally gets to seduce him. But unknown to her, a fellow Russian female agent is working on an American mole, a Senator’s Chief of Staff (Mary-Louise Parker), in a deal that involves $250,000. When the ‘betrayers’ on either side are identified, a compromise ‘exchange’ is arranged. But, as in most suspense spy tales, he/she turns out not to be the he/she you expected him/her to be.

Red Sparrow has been incubated by screenplay writer Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Lone Ranger, A Cure for Wellness) and book author Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent himself. Although he has not revealed whether this book is autobiographical/biographical or not, it is obvious that it has the clearance of the Central Intelligence Agency. Matthews would not risk prosecution/persecution. Here’s what the man himself says, “I have to submit anything I write to the CIA's Publication Review Board (PRB) to ensure that I don't reveal sources and methods. After 33 years, however, I can pretty much tell what's classified and what isn't and what the PRB will approve.” So there! It must be at least semi-autobiographical.

When such material comes your way, screenwriters and directors can choose the recipé from the ingredients with a bit of this and a hint of that added. The basic ingredients are: Post USSR Russian ambitions, post NATO Western aspirations, the dirty business of spying on other countries, the heady concoction of “my patriotism is bigger than yours”, the selling of information for either money or other forms of gratification or sexual favours or ideals, all wrapped in sex, suspense and violence. Red Sparrow offers all of these in ample measure, and yet, it is the gratis sexual silver foil wrapping that it keeps peeling, giving the film a soft-porn, peppered with gory violence, look.

It begins in an impressive manner, with parallel cutting of the ballerina preparing for and performing a ballet, and the CIA agent having a rendezvous with his mole. It’s a James Bond pre-titles hangover, but not as slick, to be sure. Soon afterwards, the film settles into a meeting, mission, bar-hotel-swimming pool setting, violent/sexual encounter and recycling. Two major twists come at the end, and they should have proved worth the wait, but alas! Both are confusing, in spite of verbose posturing and elaborate dialectics.

Director: Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire/Mockingjay, I am Legend) is not in his element here. Red Sparrow is rather uneven in pace and inconsistent in quality of film-making. Casting is suspect too. When you have names that rill on in the end credits and you match them to the roles they were assigned, you get the feeling that they deserved better.

Jennifer Lawrence, a self-taught middle school dropout, who described herself as “self-educated” does little by way of emoting and a lot by way of poker-facing. and a lot by way or eroting. It must be worth it all, since she was the highest paid actress in 2015 and 2016. X-Men, The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle were more meritorious assignments. I have yet to cultivate a taste for Joel (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass, Exodus: Gods and Kings) Edgerton and still find his face quaint and mosaic-like. He is just about okay in this outing.

Matthias Schoenaerts (Belgian actor-producer; Loft, Bullhead, Rust and Bone) looks the part, while Douglas Hodge is a perfect fit too, what with their classic features. Sakina Jaffrey does well as the higher CIA operative, while the other Russian spy Marta is played by Thekla Reuten. Sebastian Hülk as the torture and murder wizard is a normal sized ‘Jaws’. Ciaran Hinds is Colonel Alexei Ivanovich Zyuganov, Head on the Russian Secret Service; Bill Camp is Marty Gable, Nate’s CIA superior, Hugh Quarshie is Simon Benford, Nate and Gable’s superior,

Three talented actors constitute the wasted resources: Charlotte Rampling as the Sparrow School Matron, who supervises the sex games; Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi and Mary-Louise Parker as Stephanie Boucher. Parker does have some fun, but a lot was expected of the trio, which remains undelivered. And pray, why does the entire cast speak in whispers?

Rating: **

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmUL6wMpMWw

P S: What is this thing that Francis Lawrence has for birds? First he makes Mocking jay, then Red Sparrow, where he has the heroine spread-eagled and the turncoat is called SWAN? Isn’t he getting pigeon-holed? Old Turkey Buzzard and As the Crow Flies on the way?

P P S: The Lawrences are not related and neither is of Arabia.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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