Friday, March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow: Flies high

Red Sparrow (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, torture, graphic nudity, profanity and sexual content

By Derrick Bang

Red Sparrow has the crisp, nefarious and extremely nasty verisimilitude of actual spycraft, and with good reason; it’s based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, who spent 33 years with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where — as acknowledged in a 2015 New York Times interview — he recruited and managed foreign agents, “often in places where such activity was forbidden.”

Having endured a regimen of vile and debasing treatment while at a specialized spycraft
school, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) now feels nothing but contempt for her
Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who she once naïvely assumed wanted
only the best for her.
Justin Haythe’s screenplay adaptation has the slow burn of a complex John Le Carré espionage thriller, which must please Matthews, a fan of both that author and Ian Fleming. Frankly, I’m astonished; Haythe has no obvious experience with spy thrillers, and is most recently known for junk such as The Lone Ranger and the execrable A Cure for Wellness. It’s nice to see this significantly more polished side.

Austrian director Francis Lawrence obviously has developed a rapport with star Jennifer Lawrence, having helmed her final three Hunger Games outings. Red Sparrow is far more serious stuff: a thoroughly absorbing saga of regret, duplicity and reprehensible manipulation, set in a clandestine zone of prickly, real-world geopolitics.

Matthews must be congratulating himself for prescience: Such scheming cloak-and-dagger stuff seems even more credible now, at a time when Russia’s destabilizing activities have become daily front-page news.

Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a talented member of the Bolshoi Ballet, introduced as she takes the stage for a standard performance (if anything done by Bolshoi dancers can be considered “standard”). Francis Lawrence cross-cuts from these scenes to others involving the late-night exchange of information between deep-cover CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and a mole buried deep within upper-level Russian security operations.

Both sequences go awry. Dominika suffers an on-stage accident that destroys her career — an early, horrifying example of this film’s willingness to shock — while Nate’s meeting is exposed by the chance arrival of Russian police officers.

For Dominika, it’s a shattering, end-of-the-world catastrophe, and not merely because she spent her entire childhood training to be a dancer. She’s the only child of an invalided single mother (Joely Richardson) to whom she is devoted, and whose care — and the reasonably nice apartment in which they live — have been funded by her Bolshoi career.

Salvation — if it can be termed thus — comes from Dominika’s Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has kept a protective gaze on his deceased brother’s family. But Vanya’s interest is far from benign; his “solution” to Dominika’s plight involves drawing her into his realm of spycraft, with the specific goal of molding his niece into a seductress able to corrupt Westerners into betraying their country.

Hardly a healthy attitude for an uncle to have about his only niece.

Jennifer Lawrence’s fitful effort at a Russian accent isn’t entirely successful (and should have been abandoned); her shattering depiction of a well-mannered young woman reluctantly forced into heinous behavior — seeing no other option — is far more credible. Lawrence’s performance is heartbreaking at times, Dominika’s brave front constantly on the verge of slipping, but held in check by grim determination.

And by something else, which Vanya likely sensed long ago: a ruthless streak. Dominika tolerates only so much, after which her flash-point willingness to strike back can surprise people.

She needs that pride and resourcefulness, once sent to so-called “Sparrow School,” where similarly attractive young men and women are trained in the ways of seduction and manipulation by the coldly clinical Matron (Charlotte Rampling). The “lessons” are brutally debasing and explicit, the goal being to move students beyond emotional squeamishness, so they — and their bodies — become instruments of communist perfection.

(The oft-interviewed Matthews insists that Sparrow Schools are authentic, and cites a Cold War example that existed in Kazan, in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan. Given how frequently male American politicians drop their pants for extramarital — but otherwise benign — sexual encounters, it’s not much of a stretch to accept the notion of enemy agents trained to exploit such an insufferable weakness of character.)

The perfectly cast Rampling’s performance is chilling. The thin-lipped, hawk-eyed Matron is an ideal state entity, devoted to the higher purpose of her calling: a stoic monster without a shred of decency. After all, such feelings are weak and counter-productive.

Meanwhile, Nate has been grounded and blamed for the “failure” of his assignment by back-home CIA colleagues Trish Forsyth (Sakina Jaffrey) and Marty Gable (Bill Camp). Trouble is, the valuable mole won’t communicate with anybody but Nate, and so he’s sent back to Budapest.

He almost immediately encounters Dominika, a newly hatched Sparrow who has been assigned by Vanya — and his superiors — to target this American, gain his confidence, and somehow uncover the mole’s identity. The Russians are well aware of this traitor’s existence, but they’ve no idea who he might be.

Dominika’s approach is clumsy and obvious; Nate, no fool, immediately perceives this supposedly “accidental” meeting. Her background is easy to research; she confesses her recent training and begs to escape — with her mother — to the States. Nate readily accepts.

But is she playing him? Or is he playing her? Or are they both being played by their respective handlers?

The twists probably are too numerous to track as they occur, particularly given the wealth of supplementary characters who further muddy the waters. But have faith in this tight, meticulously constructed script; it doesn’t disappoint, all the way to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Edgerton’s rumpled, slightly boyish enthusiasm — Nate’s emotions are worn on his sleeve — is a nice contrast to Lawrence’s cool, imperturbable, Dresden doll façade. They spar persuasively, often circling each other like wary predator and prey (although knowing which is which is a challenge).

Schoenaerts’ Vanya is a fascinating study. At first blush, he seems merely a concerned uncle ... but the more we see of him, and witness his gift for Machiavellian duplicity, the more subtly sinister Schoenaerts becomes. There’s also something decidedly unwholesome — a frisson of ookiness — about his affection for Dominika.

Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds are appropriately ruthless as Vanya’s superiors, Korchnoi and Zahkarov. Sebastian Hülk is flat-out scary as the vicious Matorin, a veteran Sparrow who eagerly handles the nastier “wet work” not stipulated by conventional job specs.

Thekla Reuten exudes her own aura of callous, self-serving duplicity as Marta, Dominika’s new Sparrow colleague in an apartment they share, without sharing anything. Mary-Louise Parker pops up as an alcoholic, high-ranking American political aide willing to sell out her country for ready cash; it’s an oddly larkish role in an otherwise quite serious narrative, but she makes it work.

Cinematographer Jo Willems exquisitely frames the architecturally intriguing Budapest locations, although primarily via establishing shots; most of the action takes place indoors, and often in confined spaces. James Newton Howard supplies a suspenseful and atmospheric orchestral score.

Francis Lawrence and editor Alan Edward Bell take their time. This dense narrative has a lot of ground to cover, and the 139-minute film can feel slow at times. It also lacks the explosive bursts of action that characterize Bourne or Bond; this story focuses on the quieter, stealthier aspects of spycraft ... with occasional dollops of ghastly brutality.

It’s a deliciously effective recipe, ideal for those who enjoy thoughtfully intelligent espionage thrillers.

Matthews has featured Dominika in two more novels, Palace of Treason and The Kremlin’s Candidate. Might we hope for a new Jennifer Lawrence franchise?

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