Jennifer Lawrence seems content with scaring away her legions of fans lately – and it’s probably the best career move she’s ever made.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
After a disastrous leg injury ends her career as a renowned Russian ballerina, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is propositioned by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a member of the Russian intelligence – to undertake a dangerous job in exchange for her mother’s medical care. The task – seducing a politician and stealing his phone – goes horribly wrong when he rapes Dominika and is slaughtered by a fellow operative. With no witnesses permitted to this murder, Dominika is given two options; face execution, or train to become a Russian agent known as a Sparrow, using her beauty to seduce her targets.
We’ve entered a new phase of J-Law’s career and boy, is it interesting. Gone it seems are the safe, crowd-pleasing days of The Hunger Games and David O. Russell Oscar-bait. In two foul swoops, she’s alienated her legions of adoring fans and divided critics right down the middle; first with last year’s harrowing mother!, now with the equally challenging espionage thriller Red Sparrow. Neither film does what a standard Jennifer Lawrence vehicle says on the tin, but frankly, it’s the most exciting work she’s done since entering the public eye with Winter’s Bone all those years ago.
Anyone entering Red Sparrow expecting a female-friendly spin on Bond or Bourne is in for a rude shock. It’s slow-paced, talky, and drawn-out in its unravelling plot across two-and-a-half hours, punctuated with tough-to-watch scenes of graphic torture and sexual violence. Director Francis Lawrence, also taking a sharp 180 turn after helming three quarters of The Hunger Games franchise, is gritty and completely uncompromising in his raw on-screen brutality that will no doubt put many off. It’s extreme, but it’s not excessive; it’s always at the service of the dense story.
Refreshingly, it’s also perhaps the only major release film in recent history to present and handle sexuality confidently and maturely. After too much of the childish antics of Fifty Shades, it’s rejuvenating to see a blockbuster unafraid to embrace its sexual themes and show-all, from the unflinching nudity to the realistic and often taboo desires of its characters. Some of the best moments take place as Dominka is conditioned to become a Sparrow in the classroom of Headmistress “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling), who is clearly having a blast as she ruthlessly orders her students to bare all and perform acts one would normally keep private.
Lawrence herself may not be the most convincing Russian girl at surface-level, but she does well to maintain an accent and mannerisms, and her consistently fringed hair certainly helps complete the illusion. One could consider her performance to be brave – and not just because she bares her naked body full frontal. Given the trauma she must have faced with her privacy invaded a few years back (yes, I’m talking about the nude photo leak again), it’s surprising how confidently she embraces a role that objectifies her body in tight outfits and sees her beaten, bruised, raped and pummelled, and that she can still make her character seem powerful. It’s sinister stuff.
Of course, these positives can’t distract from a few glaring flaws, as entertaining a ride as it is. The plot isn’t as complex as it thinks it is or wants to be. It also suffers as it grows progressively ludicrous, with one far-fetched betrayal and plot twist after the other in the third act. Tonal issues aside, this is token dark, oppressive cinema that knows no boundaries in an age of juvenile, Disney-fied multiplexes; it’s wickedly confronting. Let’s pray J-Law continues to give her sensitive fans and critics the middle finger.
Red Sparrow is available in Australian cinemas from March 1
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox