Friday 2 March 2018
Nate N’ Sparrow
2018 USA Directed by Francis Lawrence
UK cinema release print.
Red Sparrow is a Cold War spy thriller based on a novel, the first part of a trilogy, by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews. So I guess you can certainly say the writer of the source material knows where he’s coming from in terms of the nuts and bolts operating procedures used in the story and this certainly, I think, comes through in the filmed version.
Now before I go any further, I have to say that I went into this movie knowing it was pre-cut for release in the UK... which is something I almost never humour or entertain. However, the trailer really intrigued me so I made one of my rare ‘window shopping only’ cinema trips. If I liked this ‘selected highlights’ version of the movie then I would buy the full, uncut version from the US market when it comes out on Blu Ray. Which I will be doing, as it happens. However, I really wouldn’t consider the UK presentation the same as being able to actually watch the movie itself. Why? Because I consider even a single frame (one 24th of a second) excised from a movie to be an incomplete edition and not the full work of art. I remember well the old late 1980s TV showings of Blade Runner (reviewed here) where, just the removal of one single swear word totally changed the underlying atmosphere of a specific scene and gave a different emotional hit from it. So... no... watching a movie with cuts is not the same as watching the actual film and I’m both ashamed and offended that censors in this day and age still exist. And I am certainly not giving any respect to the studio who released this and allowed it to be cut just to get a lower rating. Forget the money, guys, it’s about the art... let it lose money, it’s not that important. Art is more important. Entertainment is art and art is not a business. I know that’s a totally naive and less than credible thing to say about the Hollywood money machine but I don’t care... unless we strive to reach that ideal then we’ll never, ever get there.
So anyway... Red Sparrow is not the film I was expecting it to be.
It looked, from the trailer, like an edgier version of the film the Marvel Black Widow movie... if that ever sees the light of day... should be but, although it certainly is edgier than I would imagine Marvel would let their Natasha film be, this one isn’t an ‘action’ thriller by any sense of the expression and if you’re looking for a ‘high octane’ guns and explosions kind of movie, you’re definitely in the wrong place.
This film is actually a proper spy thriller.
It has an edge to it for sure but it’s more like a brutal version of something that John Le Carre or Len Deighton might have written so, oh yeah, I’m definitely a big fan of this film (or what little I saw of it... one of the cuts made is clumsy and obvious so I'm looking forward to seeing the ‘Jean Rollinesque’ pay-off to a certain, early sequence in the film).
Jennifer Lawrence is an actress who impresses me more and more with every film I see her in. I didn’t see her Hunger Games films by the same director (who is no relation to her, despite the surname) because the Young Adult nature of the source material put me off but everything I have seen her in, I have sat up and taken note. I hated Aronofsky’s Mother! (reviewed here) for example but, even in that, you can see what a great and dedicated performer she is and my respect for her deepens with Red Sparrow because, well, it’s a really brave part to take on and she really runs with it. Considering you have some real acting heavyweights in the cinematic ring with her on this one, such as Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling, she does a really good job and more than holds her own. Watching her career now with a lot of interest.
The film is about her character, Dominika Egorova, once a world famous ballet star but now recruited, due to circumstances I won’t spoil here (even though they’re on the trailer), to the secret government division of agents code named the Red Sparrows. It’s specifically about a plot concerning US intelligence operative Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton) and the identity of a Russian mole he is trying to keep secret. The film tells the story of the grey areas where the lives of these two agents overlap and penetrate each other. It raises the obvious questions about whether Dominika is committed to the Russians or whether she is really helping the Americans and, any weaknesses in the story come, I think, from the writing more than anything else. For instance, there’s a scene where you will definitely find out one way or another, whose side she is on but I was pretty sure the way it has been set up to make you think the opposite of the truth of the situation was, in itself, giving the game away. Another slightly problematic thing is the identity of the mole, who I was pretty sure I had guessed correctly from the outset and when the reveal came later... again, it was the obvious choice. That being said, there is a nice bit of shenanigans with that character right near the end of the film where Dominika pulls her own trump card which is a moment I didn’t quite see coming... although it makes perfect sense with the way the recruitment of her character is pitched at the start of the piece.
However, these little obvious things really don’t stop this movie from being a tight spy thriller and I really enjoyed this one a lot more than some of the other, recent attempts to juggle the expectations of ‘action thriller’ as opposed to ‘spy thriller’ in modern cinema. There’s also some really great stuff going on with the way the film is put together too... asides from the nude scenes with Jennifer Lawrence which, of course, are already leading this movie into ‘great’ territory. ;-)
For instance, there are some nice things done with the sound in certain sequences, such as the boiling sound of a whistling kettle transmuting into the squeak of an opening door in the next scene. Also, the crosscutting of the plot set up with Nate and the introduction of Dominika’s character in the pre-credits sequence, long before either of these characters meet in the chronology of the story, is handled really well and could have gone completely wrong but it’s edited very competently and doesn’t lose the atmosphere of two things coming to a simultaneous, mini climax.
Another thing the director seems to like to do is to set up expectations of a sequence by showing you what happens with a different character earlier in the film and then upending that expectation the second time around. Such as showing the presence of another character’s nasty demise in a similar situation before leading up to it again with a slightly different denouement. This is something which another great spy thriller, The Quiller Memorandum (reviewed by me here), does in its opening phone booth sequence, setting the audience up for a similar moment much later in the film. In Red Sparrow, this technique almost takes on metatextual proportions when one of the characters uses a video of a sequence to deliberately foreshadow the possibilities of ‘what comes next’ to one of the other characters in an interrogations scene. So the film really wears its foreshadowing on its sleeve here and demonstrates an awareness of how those same, subconscious tricks used on the audience can also be brought into play in the context of the movie itself.
Another thing which got me into the cinema to see this was the promise of a new James Newton Howard score. This composer has grown on me over the years and my appreciation increased after I saw a London concert last year. This isn’t, as I’d initially expected, in the same kind of mode as his excellent score for Salt (movie reviewed here) but is a much slower score with a lot of Russian flourishes (or possibly the Westernised perception of Russian musical phrases) peppered into the mix. I suspect it will take me a few stand alone listens to fully get into but it will be getting a proper CD release at the end of the month so I will, at least, get a chance. There’s some stuff in it, especially in a later scene where Dominika meets Nate in his apartment, which plays out like something Bernard Herrmann might have written for it so, yeah, definitely looking forward to the physical release and it certainly works in the context of the movie itself.
The film has a wonderfully ambiguous ending too. I am in no way spoiling it but, now that I know the source material is a trilogy of novels it certainly makes more sense that things aren’t so ‘spelled out’ for the audience and I can only hope (although somehow doubt) that the director and actors reunite for two sequels. Time will tell, I guess.
Red Sparrow is definitely a solid recommendation from me, especially to fans of spy movies which don’t just limit themselves to the action packed confections of the James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. A proper espionage thriller with a very cold sting to it and something which deserves to do a lot better at the box office than I expect it to. Absolutely go and see this one because it’s rare these days that movies like this are let out the gate, so to speak. Stupid plot holes for sure (like how can a world famous ballerina go under cover by dying her hair blonde?) but a top notch thriller, nonetheless.