Director Francis Lawrence brings his ever stylish eye to Red Sparrow, a luscious adaptation of Jason Matthews's chilly spook novel. Lawrence's reunion with namesake Jennifer, leading lady in the three Hunger Games films he helmed (Gary Ross oversaw the first of the series), comes as Russian espionage, and questions about what exactly they're up to over there, dominates the international headlines.
Whatever it is that's going on, one doubts, somehow, that reality matches the vision deployed here. Reminiscent of many a Cold War drama, Red Sparrow doesn't quite hit those heights. It does, however, succeed as a weighty, serious and violent spy fable, one peppered with recognisable tropes (borscht-thick accents, labyrinthine plots, Soviet-style scheming), perhaps, yet benefiting mightily from the director's opulent framing and a superior cast.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet who is sneakily recruited by a shadowy government agency (naturally) following a series of unfortunate events: First she suffers a horrific onstage injury, brutally depicted; she then falls prey to the trickery of her uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), an SVR bigwig whose plans for his niece are less than wholesome. Tagged as a potential 'Sparrow' – beautiful young agents moulded to wage psychological warfare and practice sexual manipulation – she is packed off to the grim training centre for her new future, the elegantly name State School 4.
Later, released into the world as part of Russia's bid for global dominance over the decadent and slovenly West, Dominika must engage in a standard Budapest-based back-and-forth with American operative Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), whose CIA career has been derailed following a botched information exchange with a high-level mole in Moscow's Gorky Park.
What emerges from this initial set-up is an occasionally satisfying thriller. While it is confident enough to burn slow, Red Sparrow's ultimate impact is blunted by a narrative that mistakes confusion for unpredictability. Only Lawrence's central performance pulls it back from the brink, her assured turn providing the complexities and nuance lacking elsewhere.
Frustratingly, the film's strongest potential element is its least heralded. The Sparrow school, overseen with stern grace and a surprising edge of motherly kindness by Charlotte Rampling's Matron, threatens to compel but is treated as little more than an extended training montage, with added barbarity. Lawrence the director captures the surroundings with a spartan, graceful stillness but it's undone by the speed with which the whole exercise is abandoned. Indeed, this approach only serves to undermine Dominika's transformation from ingenue to weapon of the state, a journey that feels all too swift.
Later, as the stakes rise, she vacillates between knowing temptress and clueless newcomer, with neither characterisation a comfortable fit. This bleeds into the broader story, unfortunately, and while that smudging of truth might appear a deliberate tactic of the genre, the direction of travel never seems entirely true.
If Edgerton is just as baffled, he exudes enough charm to power through. Mercifully, the interplay between the two leads never sags, his calm visage and guarded countenance unsettled by the prospective mark's hypnotic air of vulnerability.
In Lawrence the actress, of course, Red Sparrow possesses a genuine star of the age. She overcomes Dominika's flaws with minimal effort and succeeds in weaving a convincingly steely character, inscrutable and possessed of multiple layers.
Elsewhere, the always classy Jeremy Irons excels as watchful military officer Vladimir Korchnoi, who chain smokes and growls sagely from behind a pair of tinted Gorbachev-era spectacles. In the role of spymaster Zyuganov, Ciarán Hinds is affable and alert, his expensive tailoring a quiet symbol of post-perestroika Russia.
Nevertheless, audiences should expect little to set pulses racing. Bleak and uncompromising, Red Sparrow may aspire to moving beyond Bourne, Bond and the bloated cartoon savagery of Atomic Blonde, but it needs to get its cover straight first.