In pumped-up espionage potboilers like “Salt” or “Atomic Blonde,” Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron 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 Lawrenceportrays 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, playing a spy as someone who acts out a role, but does so by acting as little as possible. Lawrence, in this movie, shows you what true screen stardom is all about. She cues each scene to a different mood, leaving the audience in a dangling 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 here 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 sinister chess move at a time. She 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 emotionally vital but infirm mother (Joely Richardson), whom she’s devoted herself 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, her mother’s part-time nurse, 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 rascal 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.
“Red Sparrow” kicks off with what feels like a Hitchcock climax, crosscutting between Dominika’s calamity at the Bolshoi and the rendezvous-gone-awry of an American C.I.A. operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), whose meeting with his mole, in Gorky Park, gets interrupted by narcotics cops. But the movie 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 supposed 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. The way the film presents them, 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 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 Nash, which she does at a public swimming pool, so that she can discover who the mole is. We brace ourselves for another cliché: the tale of two spies who swoon for each other — and who, by the way, is using whom? (as in the “Notorious” redux scenario of “Allied”). But “Red Sparrow” is an espionage thriller that’s cleverer than it first looks. It’s driven by a romantic spark (or, at least, a half-smoldering ember), but Dominika and Nash quickly figure out everything there is to know about each other. And since their relationship isn’t rooted in callow illusions, the film keeps you guessing as to what’s at stake.
The basic set-up is simple (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, and that’s a good thing. 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 hugger-mugger isn’t movieish and abstract — it’s scruffy, rooted in desperation and 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. With a century of espionage to draw upon, even the most undercover impulses are now out in the open.