The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow is basically La Femme Nikita (and its American remake, Point of No Return) with a Russian accent and a lot more graphic sexual content. It's officially based on Jason Matthews' novel, which I have not read, so it's quite possible that the adaptation takes liberties with the material. Regardless, the plot is similar in many respects. That's fine, since the film puts a new spin on it, leading to an experience that is dark, tense, and erotic.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina. An accident ends her career, and a burst of anger gets her into legal trouble. There is, however, a way out of both financial hardship and criminal proceedings. Her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intelligence official, offers her the chance to go to “Sparrow School.” She agrees in desperation, and is subsequently trained by headmistress Matron (Charlotte Rampling) in how to use her body and her sexuality as a weapon. Dominika refers to it as “whore school.”

Once her training is complete, she's assigned to gain the trust of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative with a hidden asset the Russians would like to learn the identity of. She quickly accomplishes that task. They develop an attraction, then Dominika offers to work as a double agent for the U.S. The question is whether her expressed desire to defect with her mother (Joely Richardson) is sincere, or if she's playing Nash as ordered.

Jeremy Irons co-stars as a military general, and Mary-Louise Parker (in a genuinely amazing performance) is the drunken Chief of Staff to a United States senator. Both figure prominently into the story in ways best left unstated here.

The “hook” of Red Sparrow is its sexual element. Scenes of Dominika being trained in manipulative sexuality will be viewed as provocative by some viewers, offensive by others. Matron teaches her and the other Sparrows skills like how to perform repulsive sex acts without betraying their disgust. There's sex outside the classroom, too, during sequences in which Dominika applies what she has learned. (Sensitive viewers will need to know that there are multiple rapes in the movie, as well.) Director Francis Lawrence – who made the three Hunger Games sequels – manages to be explicit and boundary-pushing while still keeping the mature elements relevant to the plot. It's bold, without being exploitative.

The violence is handled similarly, although it should be noted that Red Sparrow is not an action movie. The pace is deliberately on the slow side to create a perpetual sense of intrigue and danger. There are moments of violence along with the sex, yet the primary intention is to focus on how Dominika reads those around her. The only way she succeeds is to know what others want so that she can out-think them. If you can get into the movie's vibe, it creates a compelling psychological portrait of the power sex can have over people.

Jennifer Lawrence is exceptionally good in the lead role, giving her character an icily seductive exterior that belies a sense of fear underneath. She's brave in carrying out scenes that would intimidate many actresses. Lawrence wisely underplays, never going big and showy when she can be subtle instead. Even if her accent isn't always credible, she turns in solid work.

At times, some of the movie's twists and turns are a little confusing. It can take a minute to figure out what they mean and how they're connected to Dominika's endgame. Also, at 139 minutes, the film would have benefited from a small bit of tightening. Red Sparrow is not going to be for everybody for those and additional reasons. It's a dark picture that intentionally presents sexuality in an uncomfortable manner. Still, espionage dramas can often feel a bit generic. This one has an angle that sets it apart, which makes it engrossing for audience members unafraid of edginess.

( out of four)

Red Sparrow is rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 19 minutes.

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