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Non-Review Review: Red Sparrow

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Red Sparrow puts a tacky (and tame) erotic sheen on a tepid (and tawdry) espionage story.

Red Sparrow has an interesting premise, both in terms of history and in terms of genre. It is a spy film structured around one of the more unsettling and uncomfortable aspects of the Cold War, the use of espionage agents to harvest information through sexual means. It is also a premise that could serve as a fascinating deconstruction of the tropes that audiences have come to expect of such films, a timely exploration of how issues of consent apply in the sorts of deception-laden love scenes that populate the genre. Red Sparrow could be James Bond as a sexual horror story.

However, Red Sparrow is far too tame to deliver on either premise. The film is too devoted to the conventional structure and dynamics of an espionage thriller to upset the audience in the way that any meaningful exploration of this history of sexual exploitation would, and is too comfortable with the rhythms and beats of the genre to offer a searing deconstruction of how its characters frequently leverage sex as just another weapon.

As a result, Red Sparrow is a meandering and uneven example of the espionage, trapped between two stools. The film is not sordid enough to excel as a visceral thriller in its own right, and not committed enough to offer a sobering examination of its themes.

There is an interesting movie buried somewhere in Red Sparrow, particularly through the self-aware casting of Jennifer Lawrence. The actor has talked about how she felt more comfortable doing the film’s nude and sex scenes after her private photographs were leaked to the world, and that forms something of the subtext to the story. “You body belongs to the state,” warns the harsh headmistress of the remote sex school in which she is enrolled.

This is a variation on a debate that women are still having around the world, fighting to control not only their own bodies but the use of those bodies to provide pleasure and stimulation to others. Women in Ireland are in the middle of a campaign to assert control over their reproductive organs. Famous women like Lawrence are facing the challenge of what to do with computer-generated copies of their own bodied being used to produce porn. Red Sparrow is pregnant with meaning, suggesting any number of intriguing ideas about ownership and control.

However, the film never quite delivers on any of this. It frequently seems like the narrative is trapped between wanting to unsettle the audience and wanting to give them exactly what they expect from a film, so the film repeatedly suggests that it might morph into something more unsettling and horrific, only to suddenly boomerang back to a rather lackluster conventional espionage film. This is particularly obvious with the film’s approach to sex and sexuality.

Red Sparrow does feature sequences of sexual violence, especially early on in the film. These moments are visceral and horrific, emphasising the lack of power that the female character has over the world in which she finds herself. However, Red Sparrow repeatedly draws lines and establishes boundaries to make the audience feel more comfortable and invested in the film, in a manner that feels disingenuous. The programmes which inspired Red Sparrow were harrowing and grotesque, but Red Sparrow tempers them for public consumption.

This is perhaps most obvious in the film’s handling of complex human sexuality, and the role that sex plays in interpersonal dynamics. As both an erotic thriller and as a piece of fiction inspired by real history, Red Sparrow has a very tame view of human sexual identity. At one point in the movie, in what Dominika terms “whore school”, the characters are given a number of case studies about past cases. One of the female students has a breakdown at the idea that she might have to seduce a “degenerate” homosexual and perform oral sex.

This is a very fundamental problem for a movie that is supposedly interested in themes of sex, identity and power. Red Sparrow maintains the narrowest possible focus, because telling the story that it sets out to tell would be horrifying to audiences. As a result of these compromises, very little of the movie makes sense. Supposedly hyper-competent characters repeatedly make poor and unjustifiable decisions in furtherance of the plot, while the movie’s internal logic makes absolutely no sense.

Before being recruited as a sexual spy, Dominka was the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi. This would make her quite a celebrity. However, when she arrives at training, she is told never to identify herself to her fellow students; it seems highly impractical for Dominka to remain hidden. Similarly, when Dominka is sent overseas, she is given a fake name despite the fake that the Americans are able to draw up data on her time as a ballet dancer. Red Sparrow is riddled with similar gaps in logic.

This is especially true when it comes to Dominka’s sexual agency. Red Sparrow has little interest in subjecting its female lead to repeated sexual assault and humiliation, and quite rightly so. That would be a very tough movie to watch, and certainly not the movie that Red Sparrow wants to be. As a result, Dominka very quickly masters the art of “soft power”, of using her intelligence and wit to manipulate those with more physical or political power than she holds. (Gone Girl is perhaps the best illustration of this; The Trespasser is perhaps the best deconstruction.)

To pick one example, Dominka’s instructor at the elite training academy attempts to humiliate the former ballerina by having her perform public sexual acts with a fellow student who assaulted her. “Give him what he wants,” the instructor orders. Dominka then proceeds to very cleverly identify what her would-be racist wants – power. However, she refuses him that. She exposes him as impotent, and is spared the humiliation of the spectacle. It is the least skin-crawling version of that scene, the version that fits with an early March major studio release. It is also clever, in its way.

However, while this scene is satisfying in isolation, it only serves to underscore how little sense Red Sparrow makes in aggregate. Dominka cannily avoided a public sexual assault using her quick wits to out-think her opponent. However, she also disobeyed a direct order from a superior who was literally standing in the room. In the very next scene, the authorities make the decision to send Dominka undercover on a mission overseas where they will be able to exert even less direct influence over her.

Red Sparrow is full of details and moments like this, story beats an developments that exist because the plot needs to move in a particular direction. Even when the characters are cognisant of the manipulations taking place, they still behave in clumsy and foolhardy manners in order to spur the narrative forward. Red Sparrow is never as smart or as canny as it thinks that it is. Indeed, the film’s two central twists are easy to predict based purely on the law of conservation of narrative and on existing character dynamics.

Red Sparrow has sold itself as a piping hot erotic thriller. Instead, it’s an espionage-tinged reheat.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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