In an age of cyberwarfare, there’s a curiously retro tone to this tale of contemporary spycraft, in which technology plays a distinctly secondary—indeed, nearly non-existent—role to actual human beings involved in traditional espionage. Bolstered by an excellent cast, “Red Sparrow” is consistently intriguing and at times even compelling, though it does seem a bit out-of-date, as well as arguably overlong.
The story opens at the Bolshoi Ballet, where Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is prima ballerina. We watch in horror as she is terribly injured during a performance, an accident (if it is really an accident) that effectively ends her career. Intercut with that sequence is another in which Moscow-based CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is meeting with his long-time source, a mole occupying a high level in the Russian intelligence service, in Gorky Park, only to have the session interrupted by the police. In helping the source escape, Nash is caught, and is forced to leave the country.
Dominika, meanwhile, is approached by her sleazy uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s in the upper echelons of Russian intelligence, with an offer that could save the medical treatment for her ill mother (Joely Richardson), as well as the apartment they share. If she will seduce oligarch Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) and replace his phone with a copy, her state-sponsored benefits will be maintained. But when she undertakes the mission, Ustinov is assassinated instead, and Ivan offers her two alternatives: die, or be trained as a seductress—a sparrow—at a remote school run by imperious, Soviet-style Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who rejoices in humiliating her charges at every turn.
After proving her mettle, Dominika is tasked with going to Budapest, where Nash is now posted, trying to reestablish contact with the mole; she is to seduce him and get him to reveal his source to her. Saddled with a suspicious roommate (Thekla Reuten) and lascivious station chief (Douglas Hodge), she nonetheless makes contact, setting off romantic sparks. But are her feelings genuine, or is she merely using Nash, who all too easily falls into her arms—and the rest of her?
That sense of ambivalence will extend through the entire film, which digresses into a subplot about the chief of staff to a US senator (Mary-Louise Parker, obviously relishing her long drunk scene) who plots to sell defense secrets to the Russians—with Dominika as the chief operative in the exchange. In addition to that sidebar, there are not one but two extremely graphic torture sequences, some spurts of brutal violence, and a number of quite explicit nude scenes and episodes of sexual harassment.
For the most part, however, “Red Sparrow” coasts along on suspense-generating mood. Director Francis Lawrence, along with cinematographer Jo Willems and editor Alan Edward Bell, fashions a languid atmosphere that might cause you to recall the one Hitchcock managed in classics like “Notorious,” and they are abetted in their efforts by a surprisingly lush and evocative score by James Newton Howard, whose shimmering strings have a touch of the romanticism Bernard Herrmann brought to films like “Vertigo.” The eastern European locations and production design by Maria Djurkovic add to the sumptuous ambience.
There are, unfortunately, a few irritatingly needless physical flaws. The most obvious comes in the sequence featuring Parker, who delivers secret US government data to the Russians on—if you can believe it—a packet of old computer floppy discs. One must assume that the DOD, or perhaps her senator’s staff, never heard of a cutting-edge device like a flash drive. Perhaps the intent was to allow a protracted suspense scene as the data is downloaded from so antiquated a source, but that’s no justification for such narrative nonsensicality.
Still, “Red Sparrow” works as a somewhat anachronistic spy tale, rather in the mode of early Le Carre. When the identity of the mole is finally revealed, it’s with a satisfying flourish, and that is then followed by a nice twist that adds a touch of poetic justice to the mix, however implausible and contrived it is.
And the film certainly has a superb cast. Lawrence—apart from not quite convincing as a ballerina in the initial sequences—pulls off the various personas Dominika must pass through with remarkable ease, and while Edgerton makes a rather bland agent (indeed, all the Americans, including those played by Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, come across as a bit soft and barely competent), he and Lawrence play off one another reasonably well. On the Russian side, on the other hand, there is splendid work from Ciaran Hinds, as the head of intelligence, and Jeremy Irons, as a stern general, as well as Rampling as the implacable Matron. Schoenaerts, meanwhile, makes a perfectly hissable villain. (It’s worth noticing that while the script makes no direct references to Vladimir Putin—the head of state is always just “the President”—Schoenaerts looks sufficiently like him, in bearing as well as appearance, to make the unstated obvious.)
“Red Sparrow” could be better, but it’s difficult not to applaud a film that, unlike most action pictures nowadays (including those about spies), treats its characters like actual human beings instead of cartoon figures; Dominika and Nate can actually be hurt, and their feelings feel genuine rather than mere poses. That old-fashioned concern with real people is basically what distinguishes the picture from its lesser genre competitors, and makes it a refreshing throwback.