Since the early days of the cold war, we’ve been fascinated by Russian espionage, maybe it’s the exotic nature of spying with its seductive participants, made real by the ever-present threat of the equilibrium breaking and nuclear annihilation. As these past threats rear their heads again, the same glamorised and exciting tropes do too. However, in 2018, a film adaptation took these preconceived ideas into question, that film was Red Sparrow.
A young Ballerina, Dominika Egorova, looking after her mother, has been enjoying success at the Bolshoi. This is until a rival sabotages both her leg and career, she responds with a violent attack on the perpetrators. Her uncle, who is high up in Russian Intelligence soon finds out. She’s then given Hobson’s choice, to retrieve a phone from a Russian minister who has expressed interest in her. Her attempts to seduce him shows she has the potential for a career in espionage. She is then given training at the famous “State School 4”, specifically adept at teaching ‘Sparrows” and after some turbulent tuition is given a first assignment of tracking down a mole in Russian intelligence. Dominika must now consider where her loyalties lie, as her perceptions of good, evil, love and hatred are called into question.
Red Sparrow dives into the gritty and stark domain of seduction-based espionage, and the effects it has on the young trainees. It does so with unsparing scenes of close encounters and resolute violence, it doesn’t shy away from the inflicting the audience to the raw and unconformable side of spy-craft, as well as balancing them with the pleasant travel prospects and the other more glamourous aspects. Despite its contemporary setting, there’s something that feels timeless to Red Sparrow, I think that it’s down to the score, and the use of locals like Budapest, and even London. All places previous spies have stalked. All masterfully evoke the bygone era and heavily woven tapestry of spy fiction.
But outside of all the foulness, lies a story about loyalty, a story about love, a story about patriotism, that is expertly delivered by a strong performance by Jennifer Lawrence. The film isn’t completely and utterly morose, there are some elements of humour, Mary-Louise Parker’s character as the corrupted chief of staff of a U.S. Senator is a notable example of this, whose penchant for vodka adds much need levity and comic relief to the proceedings.
Red Sparrow is an unflinching look at the game of intelligence, a game within a game. A game that’s willing to get down and dirty in the nitty gritty to get the job done. With its cast of characters and exotic locales, this is the exact story that classic spy stories are built on, but with modern touches that reflect our current political landscape. Red Sparrow would appeal to fans of spy thrillers but may leave their admiration more than compromised.
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