It’s March at the movies! It may be the last “official” month of winter, but while we’re waiting to thaw-out here in Canada, there’s a slew of eclectic feature films lined up for moviegoers to cozy up to: A Wrinkle In Time, The Strangers 2, Tomb Raider and Love, Simon, to name a few. But before we raid tombs and wrinkle time, I highly recommend jumping onto the turbulent flight of the Red Sparrow.

Based on the New York Times bestselling 2013 novel of the same name, author and veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews spins a delectable web of espionage in this modern spy thriller. The book is the first of a three-part trilogy, following Russian state intelligence officer Danika Egorova who has been drafted to become a “Sparrow” (a spy trained in the art of seduction to extract detailed and critical information from their marks). Danika is personally assigned to Nathaniel Nash, an American CIA officer who coordinates the organization’s most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence. The pair goes head to head in a charged environment of tradecraft and treachery, but soon, a forbidden spiral of fatal attraction threatens their careers and the security of America’s valuable mole in Moscow.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is not just a spy novel, its a spy novel with actual American intelligence at its helm. The writer is a veteran agent, after all, and his story, although fiction, is not unimaginable in our very non-fictional world of “Russian hacking” and #MeToo victims. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing it on the big screen now. For the most part, this intricate tale of power struggles is portrayed just as the book intended. It wouldn’t be the “movie version” without some changes to the plot, however.

In the book, Danika is already trained in Russian state intelligence. In the movie, she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence (mother!, X-Men: Dark Phoenix), and starts out as a Russian prima ballerina. The beautiful opening scene at the ballet acts like a grand entrance to a prestigious event, and Jennifer Lawrence’s body-double (prima ballerina Isabella Boylston of Russia) is said to be director Francis Lawrence’s inspiration for the added plot line. Natalie Portman is to Black Swan as Jennifer Lawrence is to Red Sparrow, and it isn’t long before the impressive dancer is shattered by her peers in a career-ending accident.

After the horrific incident on stage, Danika is forced to hang up her ballet slippers as the road to recovery is a long one. After retiring from dancing, Danika is recruited into a sexually exploitative government training program called “Sparrow School” by her own uncle, of all people. Vanya Egorov, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (The Danish Girl) gives Danika an ultimatum threatening the livelihood of her and her sickly mother. He is a vile antagonist, and his incessant need to maintain power over his niece is equated to the the abusive monsters of the #TimesUp movement. Vanya Egorov will make your skin crawl. 

Once at the school, Danika is forced to use her body and sex appeal as a weapon. According to the school, a Sparrow’s body belongs to the state, and nothing that is asked of them is off limits, including (and most importantly) sex. So Danika becomes a Sparrow against her own will, and an impressive one, at that. Jennifer Lawrence bares all, both emotionally and physically in this role, testing her limits as an Academy Award-winning actress. Danika Erogova could easily be considered among her most impressive and mature roles to date. She’s seductive, empowering and intelligent in a male-dominated world which otherwise perceives her to be vulnerable and fragile, underestimating her wits and drive. Sparrows, the birds, may be small and breakable, but they’re swift, self-aware, and rapid all the same. As is Danika Egrova.

In X-Men,  Jennifer Lawrence wears the head-to-toe blue mutant named Mystique down. Fans have been critical of her “boring” take on the Marvel vixen, but she’s still set to return this summer in X-Men: Dark Phoenix.  In mother! Lawrence was met with mixed reviews, but even the positive ones applauded the genius of the director Darren Aronofsky’s plot, not Lawrence’s acting. Now in Red Sparrow, Lawrence impacts every scene she’s in – as a ballerina, a Russian spy, and despite her resilience, a victim of sexual assault and rape.

That said, there are quite a few grotesque and gratuitous scenes in the 2h 20m running time of Red Sparrow, and though they are uncomfortably explicit, Danika is the subject or affiliate in all of them. Many expected this movie to play out like another action movie starring a blonde beauty with blunt bangs, but it instead focuses on the layers of protagonist while zeroing in on an avant-garde yet twisted storyline of Danika’s survival. The dialogue and subject matter are heavy, sometimes drawn-out, and they’re spliced by spurts of shocking sex, nudity and violence. Something Elizabeth Berkley was blacklisted for when she bared all playing dancer Nomi Malone in 1995’s Showgirls. The production value of the films are drastically different, as are the main storylines, but the inequality, sexual abuse, and power struggle both movies project are very similar.

Lawrence’s co-stars bring their A-game with well-polished supporting roles like Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) as Nate Nash, the American CIA agent and Danika’s love interest; Jeremy Irons (Justice League) as Vladimir Korchnoi, a Russian SVR general; and Mary-Louise Parker as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff for an American senator and the only comedic relief in this film, which is otherwise sprinkled with sex, death, and skin grafts. Yes, skin grafts! Eek! 

The ten or so minutes we see Stephanie Boucher on screen are arguably the most entertaining of the entire film and it breaks up the highly dramatic tone Red Sparrow sets without ruining the film’s aesthetic. Mary-Louise Parker stumbles in and out of Red Sparrow in what calls “a cinematic chef’s kiss.” Stephanie is drunk the entire time she’s on screen, and during her boisterous rant in a hotel suite, delivers one of the film’s most memorable and slapstick one-liners: “Why are Russian women so sexy but all the men look like toads?” Shade!

Through and through, Red Sparrow is a gripping Russian spy drama that not only reflects the social and political relations between Russia and the United States, it echoes the empowering #MeToo movement in a way that portrays female vulnerability in a male-dominated state as an asset, not a weakness. With a strong message, gorgeous cinematography, talented cast, and a thought-provoking plot, Red Sparrow will leave you guessing until the very bitter-sweet end. 

“Seductive. Deceptive. Deadly.”

4 Popcorn Kernals / 5

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About the Author

Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.