As concerns about female representation and the sexual exploitation of female characters in cinema continue to grow, cinema itself is racing to readjust itself, to make positive change moving forward. Intention and result don’t always align, and that readjustment inevitably will hit some ugly bumps along the way. It happened with Garth Davies’ ‘Mary Magdalene’, an attempt to move an historic figure out of the sidelines only to make her sidelining all the worse. And it happens again with Francis Lawrence’s ‘Red Sparrow’, an enormously impressive spy thriller for our times that tries to subvert how the genre exploits the female body for entertainment, only to be just as guilty of it.
After a terrible accident, Russian ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself with no future, until her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her into the secret Russian intelligence program, the Sparrows, where young assassins are trained to use sex as a weapon. She’s tasked with tricking the name of a high-level mole in Russian intelligence out of unknowing CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), but the game Dominika has gotten herself into isn’t quite as complicated as the game she’s playing herself.
‘Red Sparrow’ is a tricky film to get one’s head around. On one hand, it has all the makings of a cracking thriller, driven by a labyrinthian plot of intrigue, mystery and shady characters. It feels almost like the perfect evolution of the Cold War thriller, and presents a stark vision of modern Russia. Director Lawrence reunites with much of the same team from his terrific Hunger Games films, and from a technical standpoint, the film rarely puts a foot wrong. The finest example is the film’s superb opening five minutes, a tremendous piece of visual storytelling that throws though headlong into a film both gorgeous and nasty. Francis Lawrence’s remarkable skills as a visualise elevates the material to something equal parts opulent and ice-cold, much credit due to Jo Willem’s often stunning cinematography and James Newton Howard’s excellent score. The film moves with cat-like grace, holding you on the edge of your seat for the next unexpected turn, and its to much of its credit that the film is rarely predictable. Jennifer Lawrence is as electrifying as always, and the supporting cast (which also includes Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and a enormously entertaining Mary-Louise Parker) keep in step with the careful tone of the film.
On the other hand though, there’s something deeply (and one hopes unintentionally) unsettling about ‘Red Sparrow’ and the way it uses Dominika’s body and sexuality to its advantage. Sparrows are trained to use their bodies for the Russian state, unsuspecting sexual weapons, but while the film clearly wants to subvert outdated tropes, the explicitness, frequency and narrative reliance on often quite violent sexual acts, as well as explicit use of the naked female form, work entirely against that intention. Regardless of what the film might try and do, Dominika still has no agency over her own body, and while its misuse by the men around her could have maybe have been justified if the narrative delivered a significant narrative climax, the climax isn’t significant enough. It also doesn’t help that we never see any of the other training the Sparrows go through like espionage or self-defence, so there’s even more emphasis on sex as a tool, both for the characters and the narrative. The same uncomfortable explicitness extends to the violence, which is at points so graphic that it borders on unwatchable. In an effort to critique the lines these films often cross recklessly, ‘Red Sparrow’ itself recklessly crosses them, and even while the final twist attempts to distract you from the nastiness you’ve seen, the taste is still there in your mouth.
It’s a pity, because there’s a really great film hidden in ‘Red Sparrow’, a thrilling evolution of a genre that was starting to feel tired. In his theatrical review, fellow writer Brent described it as “like having your jaw broken by a bottle of Verve wrapped in a layer of silk”, and at its best, that’s exactly what it is. At its worst though, it feels like a further regression in female representation rather than the step forward it believes itself to be.
In an effort to critique the lines these films often cross recklessly, ‘Red Sparrow’ itself recklessly crosses them...
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Red Sparrow’ looks truly gorgeous on 4K UHD, making it easily the best way for fans to enjoy the film at home. The 2160p 2.40:1 transfer originates from a native 4K digital intermediate, so the level of detail is often extraordinary. ‘Red Sparrow’ is a gritty, textured film, and that balance between beauty and decay that forms so much of the film’s visual language is even more pronounced in this transfer. The colours (especially the opulent reds and deep greys) benefit from the HDR, adding to the richness of the image. The film is accompanied by an excellent Dolby Atmos track, and while the film works with a restrained aural language, the Atmos track gives the sound a deeper, richer quality. While the standard Blu-ray is excellent, the 4K UHD presentation of ‘Red Sparrow’ beats it at every turn.
On the 4K UHD, we have a commentary from Francis Lawrence, while all the additional special features can be found on the included Blu-ray disc, consisting of a series of handsomely made featurettes:
- ‘A New Cold War: Origination and Adaptation’ (12:42)
- ‘Agents Provocateurs: The Ensemble Cast’ (15:21)
- ‘Tradecraft: Visual Authenticity’ (13:28)
- ‘Heart of the Tempest: Locations’ (10:56)
- ‘Welcome to Sparrow School: Ballets and Stunts’ (12:12)
- 'A Puzzle of Need: Post-Production' (14:08)
Overall, the offer a solid (if occasionally repetitive) overview of the making of the film and the intentions behind it, with the best material around the design and craft. All the major players are interviewed, and there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. There’s also a collection of deleted scenes (12:20) with commentary, as well as Lawrence’s commentary.