Disney and Marvel can at least rest easy: “Red Sparrow” certainly isn’t the “Black Widow” solo movie by another name its marketing might have initially suggested. Instead, it’s something of a convoluted pseudo- John le Carré caper which leans heavily on sex, nudity and violence to disguise its flimsy characters and overcomplicated espionage shell game.
When Prima Ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is injured during a performance, her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) brings her evidence that her career-ending accident was caused by the actions of her co-star so that his lover could take her place in the Bolshoi. After Dominika takes her violent revenge Ivan, who is a senior operative in Russian Intelligence offers her a chance to become a ‘Sparrow’, a highly trained group of operatives who use psychology and seduction to achieve their objectives. She is assigned a mission to uncover a mole at the heart of the Russian Government, codenamed Marble and to discover his identity, she must seduce and compromise CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton).
Far too long and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, “Red Sparrow” can’t shake off its origins as a novel and make the leap to the cinema. The measured pace and devotion to the minutiae of spycraft probably works better on the page than on screen, where it wouldn’t be so absurdly transparent in its contortions to make the narrative play out. Lawrence certainly delivers a committed performance in a role that doesn’t actually ask a great deal from her apart from endurance. The violence is shocking and bloody and the nudity excessive and somewhat arbitrary, adding little to the story apart from running time. Schoenaerts’ uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin lends the film a certain topical frisson but the rest of the cast including Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons get little worthwhile to do.
In its desperation to remain opaque and ambiguous, it undermines confidence in its lead character and, thanks to some ridiculous plot leaps needed to keep the story on track, you’re never quite sure if she is super-competent or simply super-lucky. It even blows its one redeeming quality of treating its audience like grown-ups (cities aren’t captioned to tell you where they are, you’re expected to be paying attention) in a finale where it can’t help itself explaining each creaky twist and turn by replaying the scene where it was foreshadowed or hinted at.
The biggest disappointment, though, is that despite its centrality to the whole story, we don’t learn all that much about the Sparrows or the academy where they’re trained. In fact, from the moment her Putin-lookin’ uncle packs her off to Hogwartskis, we only spend about twenty minutes there and never really see little-miss-know-it-all learn anything. Her time at the school isn’t eventful enough to be enlightening and the story never really recovers from abandoning the place it should have spent at least the first two acts in favour of rushing our Black Widow/ Black Swan hybrid out into her first mission.