Moscow, Budapest, Vienna, London – four cities connected by their identities as capitals, their containing a rich sense of culture and history as well as stunning architecture and being political and media epicenters not just for their respective nations, but also for Europe at large. They now also share being the primary settings for Francis Lawrence’s spy thriller adaptation Red Sparrow – though Moscow isn’t listed as a shooting location, with perhaps the crew using Bratislava, Slovakia in its stead. Aside from the contents and historical context of the story, the presence of these four cities feeds into an inherent east-west, democracy vs. communism geopolitical divide, this time played out in present day, as opposed to the late ‘80s like in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde.
Recent years and the bubbling animosity between Russia and many Western countries have been a consistent reminder that the Cold War’s ending was merely a false one. The former Soviet Union and enemy of the world may officially exist as a constitutional republic now, though try explaining that to, among others, certain Russian journalists and a general Putin-skeptical Western populace who can’t help but recall the days of Gorbachev, Chernenko, Andropov or even Brezhnev. Such intimately felt paranoia distressingly lingers in nearly every scene of Lawrence’s film, with actions being conducted either in darkened shadows or the unassuming daylight and modernity of capitalist society, manipulating these common spaces and the visual perception of certain situations.
And yet, the whole 140-minute procedure cannot help but come across as a thinly-veiled excuse for a big-budget, studio-financed Euro-trip for Lawrence and his cast and crew – they certainly had enough time to spend, with production beginning in early January 2017 and lasting as late as May that year. Bouncing around from one pinnacle of European luxury and cosmopolitanism to another, it appears Red Sparrow had more luck scouting ornate and sumptuous settings to contrast international relations’ seedier, even more wholly sinister complexities and figures than a detailed plot whose acknowledgement of such realities does these intricacies justice. Apart from its particular assemblage of cast and crew, it doesn’t particularly stand out amidst similar examples capitalizing on a decades long distrust of everything that is Russian.
Though, in all fairness, the film does cover some interesting ground in its use of sexually-influenced power dynamics as it relates to the oppression and manipulation of female bodies and, ultimately, the subversion of predominantly male power structures overseeing this behavior and legitimizing it as normative and for the good of the country, namely by using these disturbing tactics against the system. Though production and even the source material’s publishing came well before the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, not only is it difficult not to approach such thematic subtext with a mindset engendered by the righteously prevailing dialogue, but also such meanings would prove incisively prescient regardless, and it couldn’t be more appropriate and much-needed. Even if that does mean the plot’s final twist is more easily discerned given certain characterizations and relationships, it doesn’t take away from the significance of its ‘of the moment’ tone.
Sadly, the execution in just about every other aspect is as utilitarian as Soviet-style architectural planning, trying to get by with modest appropriations of key genre aesthetics rather than a full embracing or exciting reinvention of them. For all that can be directed at the film, accusing it of simply being style over substance, it doesn’t always achieve an engagingly seductive atmosphere that can offset other substantial flaws, such as a lack of nuanced characters, deeply felt performances or actor chemistry. Players like Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton and Matthias Schoenaerts do their best with the material, but can only do so much to distract from their various protagonists’ simplicity.
And for nearly two and a half hours, most of them, with Lawrence’s Dominika perhaps the sole exception, they’re kept as simplistic as when they first appear on screen, and the screenplay just doesn’t patch together much by way of in-depth examination of any of them to sustain intrigue or add to the story’s use of well-worn spy movie narrative tropes. And another problem isn’t necessarily the film’s length, but rather Lawrence’s languid directorial approach that stifles any sense of even politically cynical vitality. While the story may offer for some a symbolic reminder that Russia is a presence in the international sphere not to be underestimated, the lack of vigorous momentum doesn’t always communicate the possible threat of their duplicitous persona with palpable suspense. Also, it seems a little clumsy using Ms. Lawrence’s character as a vessel for juxtaposing this political undercurrent reacting against Russia’s two-facedness with subtly forceful feminist commentary, as if to say, albeit perhaps unintentionally, that we should fear the latter the same way we may fear the former.
For a film that thrives on lambasting traditional power structures, Red Sparrow isn’t particularly exhilarating or contentiously divisive, but rather merely inoffensive enough to feel like it just exists. Given its subtext, its existence remains justifiable in spite of its lackluster performance, though you wish you weren’t put in the position of justifying its existence in the first place. Despite the crew’s best intentions, it’s a little easier to forget than wanted, and you just might more quickly want to switch on Atomic Blonde instead. At least then you can bask in neon lights and an expertly curated soundtrack.