Sunday, March 11, 2018

'Red Sparrow': From Russia, without love

Poster artwork for Red Sparrow, featuring Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova.

Nostalgics of the good old days where "Russia was the enemy" may be pleased with the cinematic adaptation of Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Francis Lawrence, from the Hunger Games saga and with no relation with the leading actress except directing her for a fourth time in a cinematic production.

Vanya offers Dominika a place in the Russian SVR
Any good Ian Fleming fan would notice that the essence of the film is reminiscent to From Russia With Love, dealing with a civillian sent to a training school to become an operative whose primary body is her sex and body. While Fleming's heroine Tatiana Romanova worked for the state in the 1950s Soviet Union and was sent to seduce and turn James Bond to the Russians, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a more complex situation.
A Bolshoi ballerina who is incapacitated after an accident on stage, Dominika might lose her main income and the pension paid by the theatre, which includes the modest apartment she shares with her ill mother (Joely Richardson). Feeling she has reached a dead end, she is forced to accept the help of her lascivious and greedy uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the SVR (Russia's secret service). First he asks her to perform a small job, to investigate Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) a corrupt politican who ends up almost getting raping her. She is saved by a Russian operative sent by her uncle, who brutally strangles the aggressor, but since the SVR wants no witnesses of the death of Ustinov -a word that directly involves Dominika- she feels forced to integrate the ranks of Mother Russia's Red Sparrows, a group of women exhaustively trained (phisically, emotionally and psychologically) to get into the mind of their targets, discover their witnesses, seduce and kill them.

Dominika's target, in this case, Nate Nash (another From Russia With Love connection in the name) a CIA operative assigned to protect a mole in the Russian intelligence known as 'Marble'. Joel Edgerton's character is very good agent for the Americans but is known to have some vices, like drinking in excess, hiring prostitutes and watching pornographic videos with frequency - a situation that may facilitate Dominika's job. Nevertheless, she has started questioning the bases of her devotion to the state and sees in Nate the posibility of a escape route for her and her mother from Vanya and the SVR. 

CIA's Nate Nash comforts Dominika.
Is he a trustworthy escape route?
There are those who may agree that Red Sparrow is not a perfect movie and it has a rather morbid taste for violence and sadism. Over its 160 minutes a good deal of blood ("ten pints of blood" one could say to add more Fleming references) is splashed on the screen. It is, perhaps, the kind of film no-one should invite her girlfriend to watch unless she's really into the spy genre and has a very good stomach. However, the action scenes are not continuous and there is more space for intrigue and psychological introspection, a good example is offered by the scene where the Sparrows are trained by a Rosa Klebb-like matron (Charlotte Rampling) and are ordered to perform overtoned tasks as practising oral sex to fellow Russian soldiers because their body belongs "to the state". The kind of situations that are morally questionable but interesting to get us inside the cruel world of an agency who had their roots in the old KGB or NKDV, yesterday's enemy of civilized order. It may feel offensive to some viewers but perhaps the trick is, indeed, that the audience could be offended by Russia so that we can understand why America (and agent Nash) is the only salvation for this poor and extorted girl.

Jennifer Lawrence proves to be a very effective choice for the main role as a woman who is not the femme fatale the poster campaign for the film tried to sell and it's actually victim of her own country instead of a "black widow" victimizer of the opposition. Charlotte Rampling and Matthias Schoenaerts stand out in very believable performances as the deadly representatives of Mother Russia, while Ukranian actor Sergej Onopko perfectly embodies the lethal Simyonov, a skilled torturer that resembles all the dangers of Russia previously described in the Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carré stories. Past meets present.

The technical aspects of the film are very well handled, particularly the use of Mozart and Tchaikovsky compositions and the score by James Newton Howard whose overture resembles Lalo Schiffrin's work for The Fourth Protocol (1987) and enhances drama with the use of violins and other wind instruments. The departments of Jo Willems (cinematography) and Maria Djurkjovic (production design) can transport the viewer to Moscow and Vienna making him forget he's actually located in the middle of a theatre.

Red Sparrow is an entertaining story dealing with intrigue and psychology. A story about survival and resistance more than an action film. A story about relatives, love interests, personal interests and Russian state dealing with all these intimate assets.

Nicolás Suszczyk

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