In pumped-up espionage potboilers like “Atomic Blonde” or “Salt,” Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie have gone through the motions of imitating male action stars at their most kick-ass grandiose. They’re slickly “empowered” women, yet it’s hard to distinguish that power from the thriller-video decadence of 21st-century action filmmaking.
In the elegantly tense and absorbing “Red Sparrow,” on the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence portrays a Russian spy who’s a cunningly desperate human being — or, at least, enough of one that each scene rotates around the choices she makes, the way she appraises and seizes the destiny of the moment. Lawrence, in this movie, shows you what true screen stardom is all about. She plays a spy as someone who acts out a role, but does so (paradoxically) by acting as little as possible; she cues each scene to a different mood, leaving the audience in a constant state of discovery. We’re on her side, but more than that we’re in her head. Even when (of course) we’re being played.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, who made the last three “Hunger Games” films, working from a script by Justin Haythe (based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, a former C.I.A. operative) that taps the audience’s intelligence rather than insulting it, “Red Sparrow” presents Lawrence’s character, Dominika Egorova, as a victim who is cast into a state of peril she has to dig her way out of, one ominous chess move at a time. The movie is a thriller, but it’s also a kind of sexualized nightmare, and that’s the boldness of it. Dominika starts off as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, dancing before the glitterati of Moscow in a costume of resplendent red and gold. But her career is cut short by a horrific on-stage collision (not an accident, as we soon discover). It’s here that she confronts what it means to be a pawn in the ruthless new Russian state (the same, it seems, as the old state). We also learn that when her fury flies, there will be blood.
To Western eyes, Dominika lives in a very modest flat, which she shares with her mother (Joely Richardson), whom she’s devoted to taking care of. But as soon as her dancing days end, she learns that she’s going to be stripped of her health insurance and the apartment. It’s a dread-ridden slipping-out-of-the-middle-class scenario, and it spurs her to take up the offer of her uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, gleaming like Vladimir Putin’s bureaucrat-sociopath son), who happens to be the deputy director of Russia’s external intelligence agency, the SVR. He will keep her afloat, as long as she agrees to carry out a mission.
For a relatively traditional spy thriller, “Red Sparrow” is more up-to-the-minute than it looks — more so, even, than the filmmakers must have known when they were making it. Dominika’s mission, in which she’s assigned to bed a shady businessman in a gilded hotel room, plays like a Harvey Weinstein nightmare. She winds up witnessing a murder, which means that she herself will be eliminated unless she agrees to become a recruit at State School 4, a training ground for what are known as the Sparrows. As presented, they are undercover prostitutes from hell.
That sounds like a cliché, and maybe a sexist one. But “Red Sparrow” is actually a lively critique of the Mata Hari-as-dominatrix scenario it presents to us. It’s about a heroine who has had her choices cut off by a thug patriarchy. The training school, run by the ultimate icy headmistress, played in sadistic high style by Charlotte Rampling, amounts to a series of encounter sessions in which the recruits are stripped down in every possible way. They’re reduced to being utensils (“Your body belongs to the state,” says Rampling), which they learn to manipulate. Lawrence makes her nakedness dramatic; she plays Dominika as shamed and proud at the same time. The film presents her new, transactional relationship to sexuality as a pop projection of the torments that women have endured, and there’s a resonance to that. When James Bond sleeps with someone, it’s all part of the hedonistic sport of the spying life. In “Red Sparrow,” it’s quite the opposite. Dominika deeply resents her “whore school” training. The men she faces add up to a conspiracy — sexual harassment as the dark underbelly of tradecraft.
She is sent to Budapest to have a “chance” encounter with Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an American C.I.A. operative who has cultivated a mole high up in the Russian regime. We brace ourselves for another cliché: the tale of two spies who swoon for each other — and who, by the way, is using whom? But “Red Sparrow” is an espionage thriller that’s more clever than it first appears. It contains a romantic spark (or, at least, a semi-smoldering ember), but Dominika and Nash quickly figure out everything there is to know about each other. And so the film keeps you guessing as to what’s at stake.
The basic set-up is simple enough (will Dominika sniff out the mole?), but “Red Sparrow” has enough tangles and reversals to be a fully satisfying night out. It’s more talk than action, in a gratifyingly unfolding way. At one point, Dominika joins forces with the Americans, leading to the film’s most suspenseful sequence, which features Mary-Louise Parker as a neurotic lush who’s the turncoat chief of staff for a U.S. senator. The double-crossing isn’t movieish and abstract — it’s scruffy, rooted in desperation and raw appetite. Edgerton makes Nash a down-to-earth operative, noble in his impulses but far from a superman. And Lawrence’s Dominika is gripping, because she has to keep improvising. She’s been trained to survive, and does, wriggling out of everything from extreme torture to gross come-ons from her boss. But is she calling the shots, or are the shots calling her?
Lawrence, with regal cheekbones and voluptuous bangs, has a great Slavic look, and eases into the soul of playing a Russian. She does it with an unobtrusive accent, though you wish the rest of the cast had followed suit. Jeremy Irons, as a Russian general, doesn’t even try for the accent (though he’s still very good). Schoenaerts does (sort of), and acts with a swinish glee, playing a character who’s even creepier than we imagine (he’s been fixated on Dominika since she was a child). There are no clips of Putin, and he isn’t even referred to by name, yet he’s a presence in this movie; he’s the demigod of a corruption that the rest of the characters are acting out. For the first time in a long while, a thriller revives Cold War tensions in a way that doesn’t feel corny, since the Russians, in “Red Sparrow,” are standing in for the new world order: a global marketplace of people selling themselves. It’s no wonder spying is trickier than ever. After a century of espionage, even the most undercover impulses are now out in the open, if not downright naked.