‘Red Sparrow’ review: Jennifer Lawrence Russian spy movie lost in translation

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Jennifer Lawrence is clearly trying to do it all.

In Russian spy movie Red Sparrow (based on the book of the same name), Lawrence is Dominika Egorova, a ballerina at The Bolshoi. After a grotesque onstage accident, Egorova is no longer able to perform, and as a result isn’t able to support her ailing mother. She flips out and ends up attacking her replacements at The Bolshoi, nearly killing them.

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Enter Egorova’s creepy attentive uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who offers her a way out: she can work to become a Red Sparrow (a.k.a. a spy), help out her mother and avoid punishment for her crimes. As made clear by the movie’s title and cryptic trailers, Egorova chooses to obey her uncle.

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Is Lawrence’s Egorova a good spy?

Yes and no. On the surface, Lawrence walks the walk — she’s sassy, stone-faced and vicious. Like last year’s Atomic Blonde (featuring Charlize Theron), there’s a lot of female-delivered butt-kickery and violence. But something is lost in translation, quite literally. Red Sparrow is probably a juicy novel packed with twists and turns, but in its movie form, it feels too complicated, and worse still, it’s tough to get the audience to care.

Lawrence, along with most of her castmates, does her best with the Russian accent. Unfortunately, it comes in and out, and at other times disappears completely. It’s no coincidence that there isn’t much of Lawrence talking in the trailers (and in the movie itself). Also, there’s no explanation of why Vanya considers Egorova a good spy candidate, especially considering she was a prima ballerina. The two jobs aren’t similar to each other at all.

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I’ve heard there’s a lot of violence.

There is. This is clearly not a movie for kids. Most adults will probably find themselves turning their heads away or closing their eyes. Obviously meant to show the ruthlessness and viciousness of the Russians, the violent torture scenes are both plentiful and gratuitous. There is also a brutal rape scene that doesn’t need to be in the film, and ample violence against women, which feels jarring in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

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Nudity too?

Again, yes. While there is full-frontal male nudity for a split-second, the majority of the nudity is on Lawrence’s part. Other female cast members also appear nude onscreen. Laughably unnecessary in most instances — I was reminded of one of the first scenes in 2001’s Tomb Raider, when star Angelina Jolie has a shower for no reason at all — Lawrence bares all more than once.

In particular, scenes from the “spy school” (it’s essentially Hogwarts for young spies-to-be) are the most jarring. Classes feature activities like lockpicking, watching S&M pornography and stripping naked to gain confidence. Sounds like a ton of fun.

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But how’s the story?

I’m sure the book is a good one, but on the screen this story is too labyrinthine to follow. Or maybe it’s just that so much happens, and there’s so much betrayal, it’s difficult to keep track of who’s siding with whom. Nobody is righteous, so it’s tough to know whom to cheer for. Maybe nobody?

With seasoned actors like Charlotte Rampling (here playing the militant school instructor), Joel Edgerton (a charisma-less love interest) and Jeremy Irons (chain-smoking cigarillos in an attempt to appear intimidating), it’s a wonder this movie turned out to be such a slog. Sometimes, mystery novels simply can’t make the transition, and this is an unfortunate example.

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So what’s the bottom line?

Packed to the gills with violence, nudity and betrayal, Red Sparrow drowns under its own weight. The movie may have extra appeal for those who’ve read the book, but most others will be hopelessly lost midway, and by then you may end up not caring about the outcome at all.

‘Red Sparrow’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.