Saturday Features

Clipped wings

  • Despite an intriguing premise, the efforts of a talented lead and extended cast, and links to real-world geopolitical drama, Francis Lawrence’s new Red Sparrow never quite hits the mark
Having spent her life being objectified by men, Dominika is now using that very body to assert her power over them. But even as you know you’re meant to be marveling at her strength and endurance, Red Sparrow just doesn’t feel empowering

Mar 10, 2018-Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must intuit what is missing and become the missing piece,” Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) and her classmates are told by “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling) early on during their induction at Sparrow School. “Find beauty in the human delusion that the pleasures of the flesh will make us whole again.” That idea is at the core of the curriculum at this government-run spy bootcamp in Russia where students are taught the art of seduction as a way of manipulating and defeating state enemies. What this means is that on a given day at the school, students might have to strip naked on demand and indulge in any number of repulsive, degrading sexual games, all in a bid to help them disengage from their own bodies—which now, for all intents and purposes, belong to the nation and use these as weapons.

How did Dominika end up in a place like this? You see, once upon a time, she had been on the verge of a promising career with the famous Bolshoi Ballet company in Moscow, until an on-stage mishap had left her injured. Not only was she forced to give up dancing altogether, but also made to vacate the apartment she and her mother (Joely Richardson)—who is sick and needs constant care—were sharing that the company was paying for, along with other substantial perks of the job.

So when her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, who is a dead ringer for Putin here and should really be cast in a biopic of some form right away), a high-ranking official in the intelligence world, offers her a chance at a new life as a Sparrow, Dominika finds she cannot refuse—it’s the only way to provide for and protect her mother. 

Those are the barebones of the new Red Sparrow, adapted from a 2013 book of the same name by Jason Matthews and helmed by Francis Lawrence, who had previously worked with the other Lawrence in three of the four Hunger Games films. Of course, with YA restrictions now out the window, it’s a whole different ball game for both actor and director, and their fourth collaboration comprises a stylish, confident and decidedly non-PG espionage thriller.

It also makes for a very timely entry, given the present-day rekindling of interest in Russian intelligence tactics in the West. But despite its intriguing premise, the efforts of a superb lead and extended cast, and links to real-world geopolitical drama, Red Sparrow never quite hits the mark.

A rushed, almost shallow approach to plot and character not only renders emotional involvement difficult, but also means that the frequent punches of graphic violence that the film has lined up for us don’t have the desired effect—they’re certainly startling, but unfold in a shock-for-shock’s-sake sort of way, rather than with the sort of engaging intensity you might have hoped for.

At its best, Red Sparrow harks back to those Cold War spy flicks that Hollywood used to churn out with such regularity once upon a time—believe me, some of the technology the characters use here certainly contributes to that air of nostalgia (floppy disks? really?), even though the story is very much based in the present. But the film doesn’t add much that is new or especially surprising to the formula in terms of the key moral dilemmas involved, or the intrigue built by the double or triple crosses—nothing we haven’t already seen or know to expect, anyway. For the most part, you’re in for some fairly bland viewing.

Of course, the film does distinguish itself in that it is more boldly sexualised than most entries in the genre. And you see the basic point it’s trying to make through all this: Having spent her entire life being objectified by the men around her, as a Sparrow, Dominika is now using that very body and the responses it evokes, to assert her power over the pigs. But even as you know you’re meant to be marveling at her strength and endurance—and by extension, that of womankind in general—Red Sparrow doesn’t FEEL empowering, especially through the eyes of a woman. 

This is a hard one to call. You could argue that most action flicks involve heroes being brutalised and broken down before they’re allowed to retaliate, so in that sense, what we have here might not be all that different.

And Lawrence, the actress, has said in interviews that after the trauma of having her personal photos hacked and leaked some years ago, this film was part of her effort to re-establish control over her own body—which, you know, is fair enough. But there’s something deeply uncomfortable about how the acts of violence repeatedly visited upon her character’s person are shown. 

Maybe it has something to do with the nature of the camera’s gaze, how, though it makes to establish an impersonal distance from what is happening, it still lingers on Dominika’s frequently bare curves in these scenes.

Though the leering is not outright, and one has to credit the director and writers for divesting depicted sexual acts of eroticism for the most part, our heroine still very much feels like an object, a pawn in a largely male-driven field (almost all of the higher-ups on both sides are men).

And the fact that Dominika was forced to become a Sparrow in the first place doesn’t help matters much either, making the film’s assertion of her agency a bit difficult to swallow. 

Perhaps a bit more insight into what she was thinking or feeling might have been good. As it is though, Dominika is as inexpressive as they come, her face mostly set in a blank, unreadable line. Which is even more of a shame given that they’ve bagged Lawrence for the role someone we’ve seen do much bigger things with far lesser screen time.

Even though I count myself among those people who think the actress can do no wrong, I have to admit, this is probably my least favourite of her performances. And there’s such a laughable absence of anything resembling heat or chemistry between her and is-he-isn’t-he beau Joel Edgerton that you wonder whether the casting people even once tested putting these two in a scene together prior to filming.

How you feel about Red Sparrow will ultimately depend on your individual stance on what you believe comprises empowerment or exploitation of women on screen, and how fine a line you think runs between the two. Personally, for someone who was expecting something along the lines of a satisfying subversion of Bond tropes going into the film, it disappointed and didn’t sit well with me. 

Published: 10-03-2018 08:34

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