A film that verges on exploitation

Red Sparrow (cert. 15) is frankly one to avoid. Based on the 2013 novel by former CIA man Jason Matthews, its supposedly realistic depiction of surveillance and other aspects of spying isn’t that exciting – which probably is what makes it realistic.

The credibility of a “sparrow school”, where operatives are trained for “honey traps” and to put their bodies on the bed for mother Russia, is another matter. The motivation for prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), following a career-ending “accident” at the Bolshoi no less, seems a stretch, as wicked uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a senior officer in the SVR intelligence corps, offers her a way to keep paying the doctor’s bills for her sick mother Nina (Joely Richardson).

The brutal training at what is alternatively known as whore school, under its “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling), includes explicit nudity and sexual assault. Lawrence felt violated by leaks of private photos of her in 2014, but says: “Nudity by choice is a completely different thing from being violated; this was my choice, and it was for my craft”.

Now Rampling naked in The Night Porter (1974) or Richardson as Lady Chatterley might have been “for the craft”, but here when Lawrence is exposed in front of the rest of the class, it looks like exploitation, if not violation. Later scenes of torture are no less gratuitous, even in a context where who’s fooling whom becomes key to the plot.

It is necessarily confusing – we’re not supposed to know what’s really going on until the last scene – but by then it’s getting hard to care. Even the revelation of the mystery man passing secrets to the Americans is rather underwhelming.

That traitor is seen in Moscow with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is spooked by the arrival of a police car. The SVR, led by General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and with Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds) holding the political reins, do their best to find out the man’s identity, and as Nash has been withdrawn to Budapest, Dominika is sent there to try and seduce him and get him to reveal his source.

Nash persuades his superiors (Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp) that his contact will only speak to him, and – not being daft – knows what Dominika is up to when she arrives in Budapest. When she offers to work as a double agent, the obvious question is why would you trust her.

Director Francis Lawrence worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the last three Hunger Games films, but Catniss Everdeen was a great role, and this isn’t. From her breakthrough performance in the gritty Winter’s Bone, to her Oscar® for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has made good choices, and her next good choice would be not to entertain a sequel to this.

The rest of a good cast do their best, though their hearts don’t seem in it, but there’s a marvellous interlude when Mary-Louise Parker steals the show as the wife of an American senator willing to betray her country so long as she’s sufficiently rewarded with money and drink. After the most dramatic moment of the film, there will definitely be no sequel for her.


No great surprises at the Oscars, other than Martin McDonagh’s not being nominated as director of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which won best actress (Frances McDormand) and best supporting actor (Sam Rockwell), and would have been my best picture. That went to The Shape of Water, for which Guillermo Del Toro got the director’s prize.

Gary Oldman got best actor for Churchill in Darkest Hour, and Alison Janney best supporting actress for I, Tonya. One highlight was the live action short film award to The Silent Child, a British film about a six-year-old deaf girl (Maisie Sly) learning sign language – most of its showings have been at American film festivals but it’s one to watch for.


Steve Parish