Dir: Francis Lawrence; Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson. 15 cert, 140 mins.
Here is a boost for those of us who were getting disillusioned by the idea that all Russian spies did these days was sit in a warehouse in St Petersburg for 12 hours at a time and tweet about Donald Trump. Per Red Sparrow, the latest film to star Jennifer Lawrence, far sexier things are afoot. Take State School Four: a glowering institution in the middle of some godforsaken tundra, where pliant young patriots like Dominika (Lawrence) are transformed into honey traps, primed to seduce and destroy enemies of the state.
The teacher is Charlotte Rampling – because who else would it be? – and a typical lesson entails her striding around the classroom, barking things like “The Cold War didn’t end, it shattered into a thousand pieces!”, or “The West has gone weak, drunk on shopping and social media!”, then ordering her pupils to have sex with a passing garrison.
If this sounds completely ludicrous, that’s because it is, and Red Sparrow’s reluctance to own up to it is all that holds the film back. The mind spins at what a great stylist and provocateur like Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven might have done with a story like this – Mission: Impossible crossed with Showgirls, maybe – but instead the director Francis Lawrence, working from a novel by the retired CIA operative Jason Matthews and reunited with his regular leading lady (no relation) for the first time since the conclusion of The Hunger Games, makes it all punishingly matter of fact.
The film is surprisingly explicit, both in terms of nudity and some unexpectedly gruelling torture scenes – six months after the phantasmagoric depredations of Mother!, Lawrence is still evidently game for feeding her star persona through the wringer, and more power to her for that.
But while her latest canvas has the contours of an airport novel, it has the soul of a washing machine instruction manual. I can’t recall when I last saw a film that works so hard to stop you enjoying it.
This is a pity, because on paper Red Sparrow is exactly what popular cinema is missing at the moment: a large-scale, star-driven, mass-appeal project aimed at a mature audience that isn’t tied to a pre-existing franchise. And to her credit, Lawrence treats it like the film you wish it had been, committing with total conviction to the Tinker Tailor Soldier Sexpot part. (Crucially, she also looks good in a pillbox fur hat.) Dominika is a former prima ballerina at the Bolshoi, whose promising career is snuffed out by a sickening on-stage fracture that may have not been as accidental as all that.
“There is no such thing as luck,” purrs Dominika’s uncle Vanya (honestly), a Foreign Intelligence Service officer played by Matthias Schoenaerts, with the sturdy Belgian actor in full-bore Vladimir Putin lookalike mode. The implication is that Dominika’s previous success, as well as her painful downfall, was part of a larger scheme she couldn’t hope to comprehend, though the film isn’t particularly persuasive on that front.
In fact what’s going on is fairly straightforward: Dominika has been groomed by her sleazy relative for “whore school”, as she calls it, and is then sent off to beguile a US agent (Joel Edgerton), with the objective of flushing out his mole in the Russian government.
The question of where Dominika’s true loyalties lie isn’t nearly as ambiguous as the film seems to think, while the question of the mole’s identity becomes a footling side concern as the film ties itself up in Lawrence and Edgerton’s is-it-for-real-or-isn’t-it flirtations. The faintly overqualified ensemble cast also includes Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson and Ciarán Hinds, all dutifully speaking English in the usual hyevy Rashan yeck-sents.
Despite the shortage of substance, the film’s scope does often impress, with icily opulent sets in Moscow and a plot that zig-zags its way to London, Vienna and Budapest, usually via shots of Lawrence striding sternly through a railway station or departure lounge. Yet even its crispest set piece – a fraught encounter in a Westminster hotel with a boozy US diplomat (Mary-Louise Parker) with secrets to sell – feels oddly suspenseless and flat.
Aside from James Newton Howard’s prowling, Bernard Herrmann-esque score, Hitchcockian showmanship clearly wasn’t on the agenda here – but halfway through the film’s slab-like two hours and 20 minutes running time, you’d kill for a Vertigo art gallery chase or a Sabotage bomb on the bus to gee things up.