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Red Sparrow (Jennifer Lawrence) - DVD Review

Red Sparrow

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

ARRIVING in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the push for stronger roles and representation of women in Hollywood, espionage thriller Red Sparrow is a genuinely intriguing piece of work – and one that poses many questions beyond the confines of its genre.

On the one hand, it’s a bleak and brutal spy thriller that keeps you guessing as a woman rises through the ranks of the world she has been violently thrust into and turns the tables on many of her male oppressors. Yet, there is also a nagging sense that it also flirts with exploitation at times, especially in the way that it depicts the sexual degradation of several characters.

The story follows prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), whose promising career in modern-day Moscow is brought to an abrupt end following an on-stage injury. Desperate to maintain payments for her ailing mother’s health care, Dominika reluctantly agrees to a deal proposed by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) – to attend a school that will train her in the skills necessary to become a ‘sparrow’… a super-spy who will use anything at her disposal to extract information from enemy sources.

The brutal training regime, headed by Charlotte Rampling, exposes Dominika to the way in which sex is used as a power-play. Hence, cadets are often forced to strip, to practice the ‘art’ of seduction or, more commonly, to give men what they want, no matter how demeaning.

Dominika refuses some of the more humiliating tasks and, by virtue of her connection to her influential uncle, is given an early mission: to befriend an American spy (Joel Edgerton), who has recently returned to Eastern Europe to coax a Russian mole out of hiding and bring them back to the US. It is up to Dominika to uncover the identity of the mole or face execution herself.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, with whom Lawrence worked on The Hunger Games, Red Sparrow is notable for the complexity it brings to the spy genre (this is more psychological than action-driven) and the way that it goes about things in an adult manner. The 15 certificate is, quite frankly, way too lenient and may even attract an instant 18 if the BBFC proceeds with proposals to get tougher on screen depictions of sexual violence.

Yet while there is no doubting that women [and men] can be subjected to horrifying acts of physical and sexual abuse in all walks of life, the depiction of it in films continues to be a grey area. Lawrence, for his part, doesn’t want to titillate or eroticise the sexual violence here. But the fact that he finds it necessary to show so much nudity is, in a sense, degrading in its own way.

It begs the wider question of why movie stars have to show so much nowadays. Should Hollywood not be seeking a different way of depicting violence and, in particular, sexual violence, especially when they have high calibre actors of Lawrence’s quality who would be more than capable of conveying the psychological effects?

A lot of what happens in Red Sparrow is unpleasant to watch – as it should be. But when does the line between grimy reality and exploitation become blurred?

It’s a shame given that there is also so much to recommend the film. The plotting is tight, the tension nicely maintained and there are one or two really stylish set pieces, including a violent knife fight that feels raw. But, again, the fact that one torture scene involving skin peeling has been deemed fit for a 15 certificate asks further questions of how much we’re exposing young minds to nowadays. How far have audiences [and censors] become desensitized?

Again, Red Sparrow never feels like the type of film that intends to exhilarate in the way that a Jason Bourne or even Atomic Blonde (another film that does provoke questions of taste) seek to. It is a bleak, uncompromising watch that tackles difficult – and relevant – subject matter in a commendably adult fashion, both in terms of script and performance.

And while it’s still recommended for fans of the genre for those reasons, it does provoke wider questions that linger far longer than the final movie itself.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 20mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: July 9, 2018