Thursday, March 01, 2018

Red Sparrow: Inceptional motivations drive a thrilling character to extreme ends as she fights for freedom (from 1 March)

On the Banterflix End of Year show, I named Atomic Blonde as my film of the year, neatly ignoring masterpieces like Dunkirk and The Death of Stalin to put my vote behind a Bourne-style spy thriller with a kick ass heroine and an moody Cold War Berlin.

When I saw the trailer for Red Sparrow - something I normally avoid - I half wondered whether this Russian spy thriller would somehow merge the best of Atomic Blonde and Salt with The Death of Stalin. How wrong I was.

The story begins with two beautifully intercut sequences showing the end of a career: a Bolshoi ballerina being injured on-stage while an American CIA operative blows his cover in a nearby park. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is annoyed that his source has been abandoned and petitions Langley bosses to return to the field.

Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is distraught by her premature retirement from dancing, and worried that her mother's healthcare and apartment will now be at risk. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a senior player in the intelligence services, enrols her in an elite intelligence unit, the 'Sparrows': men and women who are taught to use their seductive wiles entice and ensnare targets on behalf of the state. Their training is seen to include handy skills like lock-picking as well as the mastery of sexual positions.

The film eventually gets to the well sign-posted point where Dominika is challenged to gain Nate's trust and find out the name of his source likely to be a high-ranking mole in the intelligence hierarchy.

Lawrence's steely portrayal of Dominika shows a young woman who becomes ever more detached while she learns to tune in her emotional antennae to command control over her victims. She creates an incredibly calculating character whose psychology is as deadly as her dance-like kicking and punching. Yet her biggest weapons are her twin desires to protect her mother and avenge her entrapment as a broken sparrow.

Scenes at the training school - run by a perverse Marton (Charlotte Rampling) - are explicit in a cold and calculating way, and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Later on in the film, violence in so many forms (except traditional fights scenes) is equally discomforting. The trust between Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence is incredible, but the lengths to which one agrees to be pushed by the other verges on the obscene. Empowering for the actress (according to interviews) but nearly switches to become a Matron-esque ploy to see whether the cinema audience can swallow the extreme portrayal.

Clich├ęs are strewn across the dialogue. The scenery is stunning. The use of English with heavy Russian accents is only sporadically confusing. As a love interest, Joel Edgerton could be a stunt double for David Brent which would ruin any moment even if there was some chemistry between the lead actors. But at no point do the pair offer any sign of romance or what could pass for real passion.

The film's greatest weakness is the complexity of its plot. Justin Haythe's screenplay and Jason Matthews' original novel allow Dominika to dance with a choreographed complexity that mean her moves are nearly impossible to follow. During the last 45 minutes I found myself mentally pausing the film to try to understand what had just happened and why it was to Dominika's advantage. It's too complicated and not pacey enough to just blindly accept what's happening on screen, yet it's an Inceptional head-melter of a puzzle to unpack.

Despite all this, by the end of 139 minutes the film had got under my skin and I left the cinema and walked back to my car wondering whether Red Sparrow had finished up as a satisfying thriller. The mind games are a lovely change from car chases and fighting. The strength of character shown by Lawrence was powerful to watch and the notion of an incredibly strong victim staying one step ahead of everyone around her was a strangely appealing subject.

Once you've seen the film, you'll may understand why the revealing Versace dress Lawrence wore in a recent outdoor promotional photograph was quite in keeping with her Red Sparrow character, even if it was entirely ill-suited to the freezing temperature.

Given that author Jason Matthews will release the third book in the Red Sparrow series on Saturday 3 March, I suspect Jennifer Lawrence will return to cinema screens and kick off another Francis Lawrence franchise.

You'll find Red Sparrow in cinemas including at the Movie House from Thursday 1 March.

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