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Sunday, 4 March 2018

Red Sparrow

(MA15+) ★

Director: Francis Lawrence.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Douglas Hodge.

Don't you hate it when someone comes to a party wearing the same thing as you?

Remember movies in the '80s, with their unnecessary sex scenes, overly brutal violence, and Russian bad guys?

Red Sparrow is a throwback to that era, albeit with a modern sensibility and a less gratuitous approach to its harder-edged moments, which are all there for a reason. And that reason is to tell a gripping spy story that will have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat. Consider that as much a recommendation as it is a warning.

Red Sparrow is the story of Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a Russian ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and is coerced into becoming a specialised secret agent at the behest of her powerful uncle (Schoenaerts). She is quickly trained as a "sparrow" - a kind of master manipulator/femme fatale - and set against CIA agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) to uncover his contact inside the Russian government. But what is she really up to?

The film works because of the strength of its story, which is delivered in an unflashy but captivating manner. Despite its two-hour-and-twenty-minute run time, it maintains a steady pace and never outstays its welcome, which is largely due to the way its narrative unfolds, dealing out its mysteries and answers with great care. By the time you reach the second act's end, you may know where it's heading but you'll still be in the dark about how it's going to get there.

It also helps that Lawrence is magnetic and believable in the lead role. A lesser actress would have sunk this role and, in turn, the film by ramping up the melodrama or by making Dominika too soft or too hard. Red Sparrow's success is dependent on how much you buy into Dominika's evolution, and how much you are willing to barrack for her, which takes an excellent mix of vulnerability and power that Lawrence nails, much like she did in The Hunger Games. Edgerton is also good in what is not your typical spy role, and the scenes with he and Lawrence are a highlight (even the matter-of-fact sex scenes).

But the thing that makes this film oddly memorable is also the thing that makes it such an uncomfortable watch. The sex, the nudity, the torture, the violence - they all stick in the mind because of the unflinching nature of their delivery. While you'll be pondering the twists and turns of the plot after the credits have rolled, you'll also be left with some uneraseable images.

As a spy film, Red Sparrow is refreshing for its lack of gadgets and shoot-outs, and for offering some adult material. This is a world away from your Missions Impossible, your Bonds and Bournes, and your Kingsmen. In that sense, this is much more like a Tinker, Tailor in that it's a psychological espionage thriller as opposed to an explosion-fest peppered with car chases.

This is another interesting choice from Lawrence, who obviously deeply trusts her similarly named director (he did the final three Hunger Games). Red Sparrow is effective and interesting, and though it may leave some feeling cold, there's no denying the visceral nature of its material and the unfussed way it delivers its gripping spy story.

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