Red Sparrow review: a nice detour from a genre that condescends to women

The history of female led espionage thrillers in Hollywood is not a great one. Typically casting a woman revered for her beauty and body, saddling her with a posh or exotic accent, and assuaging accusations of objectification by having her carry out explicit violence on unsuspecting men, these films each posit the same boring theory: female empowerment is but a kick to the nuts away!

Based on the book of the same name, Red Sparrow follows this lineage with a twist – pitching itself as a kind of gritty, dramatic counterpart to the likes of last year’s uninspiring Atomic Blonde.

Reteaming Jennifer Lawrence with her three-time Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation) Red Sparrow centres on Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who is coerced into becoming a sexy spy for the state – sexy being the operative word. As a Sparrow for the shady SVR intelligence agency, Dominika is trained in the art of seduction and quickly exhibits an aptitude for knowing what makes people tick.

Good thing too, it turns out, as we find that being a Russian spy is as much about fending off your pervy boss as it is picking locks and, instead of clinically choreographed action scenes and car chases, the majority of Dominika’s battles play out in the tense exchanges she must carefully negotiate with the cruel, sexually aggressive men around her.

If you think that sounds boring then you will might find Red Sparrow boring – and, with a 139-minute runtime, the recurrent sexual violence and grisly torture scenes do not make it a particularly easy watch.

Still there is something to be said for a film that eschews tired and disingenuous girl kicking-butt tropes for something a bit more hard edged. Where the slick Angelina Jolie action films of yore had us convinced that individual freedom is a matter of wearing leather pants and besting men at mixed martial arts, Dominika endures her ordeal with a kind of strategic passivity, the lofty notion of ‘empowerment’ replaced by the far more familiar task of constant and intensely fraught decision making.

As an engrossing espionage thriller, Red Sparrow is let down by its ultimate anticlimactic revelations and complete lack of chemistry underlying a fairly key relationship. I am also loathe to recommend a film that perpetuates the myth that blonde box dye can give a brunette Jennifer Lawrence’s extremely expensive looking highlights. Still, as a stylish – if insubstantial – psychological drama Red Sparrow is elegant, engaging and a nice detour from a genre that condescends to women far more often than it ’empowers’ them.

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