In Russia, Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is a famous ballerina, wowing audiences every week with her grace and elegance. Unfortunately, her dancing career comes to an abrupt end after breaking her leg during a performance. Left with no job, a sick mother (played by Joely Richardson), and an uncertain future, Dominika is approached by her uncle Ivan (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) with a possible solution to her dilemma. Ivan, who works for Russian intelligence, wants to use his niece to get close to a certain Russian politician, with the goal being to steal his cell phone and replace it with a bugged replica. After things don’t go quite as planned, Dominika is given a choice – join the “Sparrow” espionage program, or be killed. As a Sparrow, Dominika is trained to use her mind and body as both tools (for intelligence-gathering) and weapons (when things get ugly). Eventually, she is given the task of shadowing an American CIA Agent (played by Joel Edgerton) in order to discover the identity of his Russian contact. What follows is an internal struggle between Dominika’s newly-instilled training and the person she once was – and with so much on the line, there’s no telling which side of her will win out in the end.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, RED SPARROW reunites director Francis Lawrence (who helmed the last three HUNGER GAMES films) with star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation – in case you were interested). But even the most unintuitive viewer could probably still surmise that both of these Lawrences have worked together before, chiefly from how the film was shot – with the eye of a director that knows his actor’s strengths, and accentuates them. With each passing frame, Francis Lawrence knows a.) how to get the performance he wants, not just from Jennifer Lawrence, but his entire cast; and b.) the shot/angle that will highlight and invigorate a performance. Having said that, Jennifer Lawrence’s gripping performance as Dominika is as much a testament of her Oscar-winning talents as it is the product of a director that knows his actor inside-and-out, and uses that knowledge to bring out the best performance possible.
Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, her performance was certainly the main highlight of this film, without a doubt. Her ability to strike that balance between sentimental woman trying to put her life back together, and emotionless government tool focused on the task at hand, really helps her character get over with the audience, allowing them to still sympathize with her plight despite many of the actions she undertakes. Lawrence just seems to have that natural ability to radiate off the screen, no matter the role. In RED SPARROW, this ability allows the character of Dominika to strike just the right tone, whether sharing a personal moment with her mother, or pointing a gun at someone’s head; as a result, Lawrence has the audience transfixed on her completely, both visually and emotionally.
While Joel Edgerton’s performance as the seasoned CIA Agent Nash was good, if unspectacular, there seemed to be little to no chemistry between him and Jennifer Lawrence. The two of them just didn’t click together, which created one of the big hurdles for the film. Each scene together just came off more and more cold and distant, which was the complete opposite of what the narrative was trying to convey. It’s obvious that director Lawrence tried to use intimate close-ups at key points of the film to help try to express what was needed for the story, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. You could argue that it’s no fault of anyone, but again, the relationship between Dominika and Nash just didn’t resonate with me, despite the film trying to make me feel otherwise. Supporting performances by Charlotte Rampling (second-best behind Lawrence, by far) as the Headmistress of the Sparrow School, Jeremy Irons as a high-ranking Russian general, and Mary-Louise Parker as a U.S. Senator’s (seemingly-corrupt) Chief of Staff, round out the cast.
The film’s other big hurdle comes in the form of its uneven screenplay. It starts off strong enough, but somewhere along the way, it feels like it starts to lose the audience by moving things along at a glacial pace. By the time Dominika finally meets up with Nash for the first time, it feels like the film took forever and a day to get there. And what makes this more egregious is the fact that a run-of-the-mill espionage thriller is able to stretch itself to over two hours in length when, with proper trimming, the same story could’ve been told with a shorter running time. The result is a film that relies too much on filler, to the point where the big reveal at the end is drained of much of its significance; by the time you get there, you just don’t care anymore.
Despite these hurdles, RED SPARROW manages to still be a passable film, but there is a certain air of disappointment knowing that it had the potential to be more. Jennifer Lawrence’s great performance is truly the film’s saving grace, giving us a flawed character that is able to still provide the audience a sympathetic protagonist to root for, and director Francis Lawrence uses all the tools at his disposal to give her the proper spotlight. But is this performance enough to make you want to see it in theaters? Probably not – and that’s where the film’s flaws prove fatal. While there are certainly worse films out there, it’s the ones that squander their prospects that seem to bother me the most, and RED SPARROW fits all too comfortably into that category.
2018 • 140 Minutes • United States
Color • English • 20th Century Fox
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Mary-Louise Parker