Red Sparrow

Review by Allan L. Branson

Shows like HBO’s Homeland and FX’s The Americans have seemingly whet the public’s appetite regarding espionage. Red Sparrow is therefore a timely film, based on the novel by the same name authored by Jason Matthews. The book is squarely within the genre of Demille’s The Charm School, Ignatius’ Body of Lies, and LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. These novels and their screen adaptations attempt to illuminate the intriguing world of espionage.

When Russian ballet artist Dominika Egorova’s income is stopped due to a Tonya Harding-style act of competitive sabotage, she is given a “Hobson’s choice.” She can attend a training camp and be tasked with duties in support of “Mother Russia” intelligence gathering efforts or suffer in poverty along with her sickly mother. This is the “Cold War.” The most salacious of these intelligence gathering methods is the “honey trap.” It is an exchange of information for sex, rendering compliance from a targeted individual, unbeknownst to them. The term “useful idiot” comes to mind.

Notable performances are rendered by Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, the recruit; Joel Edgerton as the CIA operative; Mary Louise Parker as the alcoholic whistle blower; Jeremy Irons as the Soviet officer, and Charlotte Rampling as the severe instructor. The solicitous KGB uncle, Vanya Egorova, is adeptly portrayed by Mathias Schoenaerts.

The film is also timely due to current political events. Some have suggested that since the fall of the former Soviet Union (FSU), Russia today is little more than a gas station with an army. If so it is a direct result of corruption, a collapsed economy and an unwinnable arms race with the US. The country was left with little more than weapons to sell on the international black market. Yet in Russia today their culture of crime remains an indistinguishable mixture of politicians and the voryor thieves in-law. It is a hybrid of organized crime and oligarchs. Recent news reports have suggested 12-15 assassinations of journalist and opposition leaders against the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, who have been shot on the street, poisoned, thrown from windows and most significantly killed on foreign soil (e.g. UK). Additionally, there is the Steele dossier, rendered by a former MI-6 operative suggesting political shenanigans with existential implications for those of us residing in “…the land of the free and home of the brave.”

Dominika’s early camp days, while minimally shown, suggest a drab existence of constant monitoring and deception role-playing exercises. Rampling as Matron, one of the camp instructors, quips during a daily lesson, “Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything.” Ms. Rampling’s countenance bespeaks one who is a grand dame of the cinema, to which her diverse roles and numerous films bear witness.  

Jeremy Irons as Korchnoi, the suspicious military officer, was not challenged by this role but then again there are few roles that would be challenging for this veteran thespian. His addition to this film adds star power but little more.

Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s uncle never reveals his true motivations regarding the recruitment of his niece. His presence is sinister precisely because his aims are unknown.

There is nothing remarkable regarding Miss Lawrence’s performance, yet it is her consistent capable acting and on-screen presence that remains wholesome and ensures her a returning audience. Jennifer Lawrence may not be the new Katherine Hepburn (just a thought) yet there is something about her ability to connect with the audience. She has done so through a litany of financially successful films in which she has appeared.

Australian born, Joel Edgerton portrays a capable CIA operative, Nate Nash, who while certainly attracted to Miss Lawrence is not naïve enough to become a part of her “honey trap.” Edgerton’s previous works include Black Mass, Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirtyand Warriorto name but a few. In all of these he is a smoldering man of few words, displaying a quiet intensity. This film does allow him to display a bit more agonizing physicality than some of his previous works except Warrior.

An unexpected surprise was the appearance of Mary Louise Parker who has starred in TheWest Wing (NBC), Weedsand Billions (HBO). Her portrayal of an intoxicated agent provocateur is uncomfortably believable. It is not clear, however whether her alcohol consumption is a habit or a response to her current situation of, selling secrets for money. While she is not a villain her short on-screen performance suggests something repulsive about her character. Consequently, her comeuppance in the film gave me a bit of schadenfreude. Well-played madam!

In Russia, criminals and oligarchs are indistinguishable from each other. This in part was due to the “bitch wars” in 1945. Stalin, in furtherance of his reign of terror, conscripted prisoners to fight in WWII in exchange for pardons. Those who did so and survived were betrayed, sent back to prison and therefore viewed as traitors by those prisoners who refused to aid their corrupt government. These vicious prison fights and murders established the beginnings of the Russian criminal hierarchy as we know it today. The voryor thieves- in- lawexist as a criminal organization have their own laws beyond the KGB. Yet they interact with and exist within the hierarchy of the Russian political power elite.

The ruthlessness of Russian mobsters has been borne out culturally across the mediums of television and film. In Training Day (2001), it was Denzel’s character Lonzo Harris’ handlers ultimate concern and his eventual undoing. In Eastern Promises(2007), Viggo Mortensen portrayed, with his usual nuanced intensity, a Scotland Yard, undercover infiltrator/informant/hitman for a Russian crime family. The naked knife fighting scene in the bathhouse speaks to the degree of ruthlessness employed by the voryand often detailed in popular culture. Even mob boss Tony Soprano (Season 3, Ep. 4) warned his sister, “Don’t mess with the Russians Janice, that’s all I’m gonna say…,” and later by her hospital bed, “I told you not to mess with those people.” As if we are not sated enough by the daily headlines of intrigue, collusion and conspiracy, the real draw for the audience in watching Red Sparrow is that it is another morsel to whet the public’s appetite for espionage, especially Russian.