I sat down to watch RED SPARROW with limited expectations given the poor reviews and controversy surrounding the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller. But I found the film to be beautifully cast and acted, superbly photographed, evocatively scored, with a script that was intelligent and provocative and a directorial eye that rightly forced us to address all of the darkness inherent in the #metoo movement. I have since read some of the reviews and it feels as though many people are utterly missing the point of this slippery film. But I would urge you to watch it, and to keep your wits about you and your loins girded. No other film better speaks to our times.
The movie opens in contemporary Russia where Jennifer Lawrence's prima ballerina Domenika (shades of BLACK SWAN - Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to the film!) is savagely injured on stage and her career ruined. Facing eviction and no means of supporting her sick mother (Joely Richardson - saying more with one look than many actresses with pages of screenplay), Domenika is lured into working for her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts - a dead ringer for a young Putin), the Deputy Director of the Russian secret services. He essentially pimps her out to an oligarch, deliberately putting in the way of sexual assault. When Domenika then becomes witness to that oligarch's murder she is given the non-choice of being assassinated herself, or joining the Russian SS4 spy school and essentially continuing her career as a spy/whore for her country. Her specific mark is an American CIA agent based in Budapest, played by Joel Edgerton, who is running a mole in the Russian secret service. Her task is to seduce him and get the name of the mole. Meanwhile, she runs a side-con, offering him the information that a senior American official is selling state secrets.
Let's start with the unequivocally good stuff. This is a movie that looks gorgeous. Every detail of the shabby 70s looking Budapest and Russian apartments contrasted with the ornate Russian government offices and ballet theatres is sumptuous and evocative, creating a world that I utterly believed in. The cinematography and editing is similarly superb - particularly in the opening scene that intercuts the ballet accident and a spy meeting in Gorky Park that goes wrong. Even that name is evocative - and this is a film that clearly knows and respects the history of its genre, complete with a final handover scene straight out of SMILEY'S PEOPLE. Moreover, with the exception of a few very violent set-pieces this is not really an action movie at all. It's a genuinely tricksy intelligent spy thriller that has you genuinely guessing as to which side Domenika is on, and who the mole is. It has the confidence to make its audience work hard, and to confirm a theory with a simply subtle smile between two characters rather than with heavy-handed exposition.
And now to the controversy. RED SPARROW is a film about how men exercise power over women, subtly, obviously, through coercion or outright aggression, and more often than not through sexual violence. This sexual violence graphically shown and so it should be - to show the sheer fear of a woman physically assaulted by a powerful man - and to contrast with how Domenika slowly takes back that sexual and intellectual power from pretty much every man in the film. It is - then - a film that doesn't shy away from showing scenes of rape, attempted rape, and sexual manipulation and humiliation. But each time, there is a power shift. And how refreshing to see a woman's sexual power explored on film by an actress who was firmly in control of the film's development and her own nudity. In other words, this isn't - per many reviewers - a sexist film - but a film about sexists. It's a film about a woman's political awakening. And that couldn't be more relevant.
RED SPARROW has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R. The film was released in cinemas in March 2018 and is now available to rent and own.
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