Thursday, 8 March 2018

Film Review: The Jennifer Lawrence fronted Red Sparrow is a thriller devoid of thrills

There's something to be said for a film as dedicated to its intentions as Francis Lawrence's Red Sparrow. It's precisely the kind of film that knows in microscopic detail what sort of tone it wants to hit, what form of story it wants to tell. It's unafraid of its potential controversy, willing to indulge itself in dark, sinister moments. It assembles an all star cast and travels around the world, setting scene after scene in stunning, picturesque environments. So, I ask, why does it never leap off the screen?

Red Sparrow is more of a spy film than a thriller one, which may not quite be what the trailers sold us with but we live in an age now where such a thing is common. Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina who is coerced by her Uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into joining a Russian intelligence operative group known as the Sparrows. Her task is to infiltrate CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and learn the name of his contact inside the Russian government. It's hardly a revolutionary narrative to begin with, comprised of spies and moles, infiltrations and double crossings. I have no gripes with the film remaining content to tell such a simplistic story, but it immediately puts pressure on Red Sparrow to find its identity elsewhere.

Ultimately its identity seems to stem from its depiction of violence, predominantly rape. Wisely, director Francis Lawrence never takes his actions too far, but the film's reliance on such an assault to build character and advance plot feels misjudged. Haven't we seen this enough times by now? It doesn't quite derail Red Sparrow, but it holds you at a distance. It makes you question if you can trust such a film to ultimately put its characters ahead of its violence. Lawrence's film never quite reaches that stage, both Egorova and Nash are compelling enough on screen (thanks mostly to the actors behind them) but they never really become people we're invested in. Red Sparrow is too infatuated with violence and plot mechanics to let its leading faces blossom into something worth our time.

The film relies heavily on atmosphere and performance to hold our interest, a risky move for a feature that clocks in at 140 minutes. Against all odds it does sustain itself, if barely. Red Sparrow is a peculiar film in that I felt compelled for every minute I spent with it, but it never quite shifted into something I found especially interesting. I waited and waited for the moment to come, but it never arrived. It spends a long time on gratuitous and frankly boring torture sequences before landing on a climax that isn't so much unsatisfying as it is underwhelming. The film seems to congratulate itself for such an ending, though, as if it feels its double bluff trickery has paid off - it really hasn't, most people will see this coming a mile off. The ending itself works because it makes sense, but that's precisely the same reason you'll work it out long before it happens. It's really just about the bare minimum.

Holding most of this together is Jennifer Lawrence, here given the chance to reduce her usual flamboyance to something quieter and colder. Her take on Dominika Egorova is a quiet one, one imbedded with subtle nuances and short, snappy punches of emotion. It's her steely-eyed gaze that stays with you the longest, fluctuating Russian accent aside it's another excellent performance from Lawrence. Edgerton isn't tasked with much but he convincingly sells Nash's determination to complete his job, and while the two lack chemistry the lustless rapport between them effectively shifts back round into working in the film's favour. Red Sparrow is all about lies and deceptions, holding their connection at a distance is some neat trickery on the film's behalf that I'm still not entirely sure was intentional.

Red Sparrow is the definition of a film that simply gets the job done but never aspires to be more than the sum of its parts. Francis Lawrence's direction is sturdy but unspectacular, the film's script laces doubt into its characters but never fully explores them, the story is serviceable at very best and the resolution is obvious but still satisfying. It's a frustrating film to review, as I can confidently say I'm glad I saw Red Sparrow but I'm not sure it's one I could recommend, not knowing that the spark of interest I waited to be ignited was never lit. It's a competent film with more that works than doesn't work, but it won't be making any waves any time soon. As far as films titled after coloured birds go, a certain balletic melodrama from a few years back certainly trumps this one.

In A Sentence

Despite a reliably committed performance from Jennifer Lawrence, Red Sparrow never turns its various assets into anything greater than a serviceable, cheaply satisfying espionage thriller.

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