An icy Russian espionage tale that would have looked right at home in Cold War-era thrillers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Red Sparrow” explores the recurrence of queasy U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of the presidential election by giving it a human face. It turns out that the bad guys look a lot like us — or, rather, like Jennifer Lawrence, who manages the tricky proposition of adopting a Russian accent with a surprising degree of effectiveness, embodying a badass post-Soviet spy who uses her sexuality like a weapon. Director Francis Lawrence compliments the performance with an atmosphere of unease similar to his work on “The Hunger Games,” but this time, the sense of a desperate world and a woman trapped by its twisted rituals hits all too close to home.
Though it wanders a lot in its bloated running time and doesn’t quite stick the landing, the Lawrences on both sides of the camera go to great lengths to make this heavy dose of familiar storytelling resonate. Based on former CIA agent Jason Matthews’ debut novel of the same name, “Red Sparrow” finds Lawrence playing Dominika Egorova, a femme fatale in training. Initially a star ballerina in Moscow, Dominika’s injured in a sudden, shocking development during the movie’s opening minutes; three months later, she’s just moping around the house. Enter her dashing uncle Ivan (Mattias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of Russian intelligence who coaxes her into a scheme to seduce a wanted man.
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That gig marks the first of several times that Dominika uses her body to push powerful men into a state of vulnerability, and the bloody outcome arrives not a moment too soon (actually, it arrives a moment too late — the rape quotient is disturbingly high here). The outcome leaves Dominika with a queasy choice: Join the Sparrow School, a covert spy program that teaches women how to seduce their enemies, or allow the government to kill her to preserve the secrecy of its operation.
If you think that’s an easy choice, you don’t know the Sparrow School. Suddenly, Dominika finds herself in the clutches of depraved and demeaning seminars in which students must strip and engage in sexual behaviors in front of their stone-faced classmates. Charlotte Rampling gives a monstrous performance as the headmistress, whose capacity to arouse and disturb her disciples ranks as some of her best scene-chewing in recent memory. The queasy blend of eroticism and tactical discussion wouldn’t look out of place in a Catherine Breillat movie (although some viewers may see shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale”), and it’s especially resonant when conversations about exploiting sex for power couldn’t be louder.
It doesn’t take long for Dominika, keen on surviving at all costs, to take control of the situation. Confronting a pervy male classmate by baring all, she intimidates him out of the room. Seen on its own terms, the scene ranks as the most daring in Lawrence’s career to date, a risky means of turning her own star power against the audience much as the character weaponizes her physicality.
If only the ensuing plot that allows her to put that weapon to work held the same level of intrigue. Dominika is eventually assigned to befriend CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton, so subdued it’s a wonder he never nods off mid-sentence). Her main goal requires her to determine the identity of a mole who appears to have infiltrated Soviet intelligence, and for the movie’s second half, it’s unclear whether she actually wants to fulfill this task or escape it.
She naturally begins an affair with Nash, yet even as he figures out her identity and confronts her about her motives, her allegiances remain uncertain until the final moments. But there’s no big revelation here — savvy viewers will figure out the mole’s identity long before Dominika does, and her oscillating allegiances start to feel awfully redundant when the movie has another half hour to go. There’s nothing about the moral crisis in “Red Sparrow” that hasn’t been explored a million difference ways on “The Americans,” and the movie may as well exist in that show’s expanded universe a few decades later on the timeline.
Every scene is defined by whispery exchanges and stern looks that often threaten to veer into camp, or boredom, but the considerable talent on display is its constant saving grace. (Aside from Lawrence and Rampling, there’s also a wistful Jeremy Irons as a Russian general, Ciaran Hinds as his dyspeptic colonel, and a klutzy Mary Louise Parker as a corrupt government insider.) The elegance of Francis Lawrence’s direction, cinematographer Jo Willems’ measured camerawork, and James Newton Howard’s ominous score adheres to a familiar set of beats, but it’s the rare big Hollywood mood piece and mostly satisfying on those terms.
With so many solid ingredients, it’s unfortunate that “Red Sparrow” doesn’t know when to stop, sagging into bland torture scenes and an underwhelming final showdown in its concluding act. Ever here, however, the movie resonates with a precise topicality for an audience reeling from the exhumed shadow of the Soviet threat. It’s a near-subversive maneuver to cast the world’s biggest star as an ostensible villain, whose complicated relationship to her job is all the more chilling because it ends on a state of complete ambiguity — with no clear end in sight.
“Red Sparrow” opens nationwide on Friday, March 2.