It is best to consider the closed world of director Francis Lawrence's Red Sparrow as it is: cruel, heartless, and often brutal. When our protagonist is raped by a target of Russian intelligence agents, only to be sprayed by the blood from his neck when he is rather gruesomely strangled with metal wire, she receives no sympathy from those intelligence agents. Instead, she is given two choices: be killed as a witness to the murder (which, officially, didn't happen, of course) or be installed in what she later terms a "whore school," an education in the art and heartlessness of seduction. As Justin Haythe's screenplay moves inexorably toward its conclusion, a curious thing happens to this protagonist.
The development process for Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence, adopting a nearly faultless regional dialect) quite literally moves backward as the plot moves forward. Instead of beginning as an unreadable character, everything we understand about Dominika is confined to the opening act. By the end, the character has so successfully achieved the goal of her superior officers in the practice of espionage that she is an enigma. By that point, too, she has become a one-note bore, despite Lawrence's performance, which always smartly hints at what she can never express. It's a good turn from an actress who has become skilled in this department of conveying a lot with the features of her profile, even when asked not to move it a whole lot.
Dominika begins the story as a skillful dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet. Following a gruesome leg injury (coordinated by her understudy and dance partner, whose affair she interrupts with an outburst of violent retaliation) that leaves her unable to dance for several months and an outcast from the Bolshoi, she is approached by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to take part in the capture of the aforementioned intelligence target. She chooses the twisted school, whose matron (played by Charlotte Rampling) requires unquestioning loyalty from her "Sparrows" in the face of psychosexual mind games, over death.
Her "training" at this school is curious, indeed. There is another scene involving rape, this one unsuccessful beyond the attempt but certainly enlightening in how it defines the dynamics of power and sexuality within the world of seductive spy games. It plays, to an extent, into her eventual mission, which involves gaining the trust of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an operative with the Central Intelligence Agency. There is a mole in the Russian government (represented primarily by two upper officials played by Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons), and the chief of staff (played by Mary-Louise Parker in an electrifying cameo) to a U.S. Senator has information vital to this point.
The two halves of the plot - Dominika's growing understanding of the sexual politics in Russian espionage and her investigation of Nash, with whom she inevitably sparks a romantic connection - never convincingly gel, resulting in an awkwardly bifurcated mystery (punctuated by brutal, grisly violence and scenes of torture that, somehow, feel gratuitous even in this story) and an attempt at a character study limited by a screenplay that strips away that character's identity until, by the end, she has become one with that bogeyman known as the System. Red Sparrow has style to spare, and too much of it is in vein.
Jennifer Lawrence (Dominika Egorova), Joel Edgerton (Nate Nash), Matthias Schoenaerts (Vanya Egorov), Charlotte Rampling (The Matron), Jeremy Irons (General Korchnoi), Mary-Louise Parker (Stephanie Boucher), Ciaran Hinds (Zakharov), Thekla Reuten (Marta), Joely Richardson (Nina Egorova), Bill Camp (Marty Gable), Douglas Hodge (Maxim Volontov), Sakina Jaffrey (Trish Forsyth).
Directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Justin Haythe.
Rated R (violence, torture, sexual content, language, graphic nudity).
Released on March 2, 2018.