Review: Red Sparrow | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Red Sparrow

Film Critic Madeline McInnes is highly impressed by Red Sparrow, a darkly contemporary thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence

Going into Red Sparrow, I think we were all expecting a Black Widow knock-off starring Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs — at least that’s what the trailers made it out to look like. My expectations were relatively average heading into this film. I just expected it to happen, then I’d go about my life and completely forget about it. What I found instead was that while the trailers are valid they’re incredibly misleading. Rather than this being a film about sexuality as a weapon, it’s more about the trauma of sexual assault, tough politics, loyalty, and what we would do for — or to, in many cases — our family members. 

The plot revolves around Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) a prima ballerina in Russia who suffers a career-ending injury. Out of options she  is coerced into becoming the newest recruit for the  Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service that trains exceptional young people like her to use their bodies and minds as weapons in service of the state. After enduring the perverse and sadistic training process, she emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow the program has ever produced. Dominika is assigned to seduce an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who tries to convince her can offer her a way out.

Rather than nudity being used in a “male gaze” sense like all of us expected, it was used as more of a craft. Nudity is normalised as bodies and minds are weaponised. There are also several full-frontal male naked bodies alongside Lawrence’s. Though I could see why the argument could be made against all of the bodies in this film, every aspect of nudity was justified in the plot or in building the tension and relationships between characters.

A film like this relies on intellectual stimulation and representation. On top of that, it’s cinematography is absolutely stunning
I never looked at it and thought that a body was only being shown for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure.  That all leads to a wonderfully crafted conclusion. It is surprising enough to be worthwhile, but the way it is explained doesn’t feel like a cop-out. Furthermore, it’s tied up neatly enough for you to feel satisfied, but left loosely enough for some interpretation — a perfect storm for a film like this that relies on intellectual stimulation and representation.  On top of that, it’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. Almost everything is shot on-location, and it definitely shows and adds an authenticity to the exchanges and politics between characters. 

The biggest criticism of this film I’ve seen online so far is its handling of sexual assault issues. In case you didn’t figure it out from the trailers — something I thought was pretty obvious going in — is that Jennifer Lawrence’s character is raped in the beginning of the film. There are actually two notable rape scenes and each is handled in a different way due to the context. The second of the two is the scene that people are taking issue with. Without too many spoilers, someone tries to rape Lawrence’s character and she is punished for beating him up. However, she takes charge of that situation when she is supposed to be punished for beating him up, and she just humiliates him further.  As a sexual assault survivor myself, I think the people that are taking issue with the handling of that scene are missing the entire point of that second exchange. Of course that’s not how it happens in real life, but not many of us are told that by defending ourselves from a would-be rapist, we’ve damaged an asset to the government. It’s not meant to be real, it’s meant to be symbolic. 

The point of the scene is about how people don’t rape for sex, they rape for power. Furthermore, it’s showing how the authority figures that we are supposed to trust in these instances often turn the situations on us — usually through victim blaming. If you need a real example of that, just look at the Brock Turner case in the United States. 

The film does an excellent job of addressing the real people behind sexual assault
Those concepts are hard to describe in a physical space, so the filmmakers have made it into a metaphor. The authority figures put her up on a stage and force her to relive that experience, like in a courtroom. However, there’s a physical representation of that concept as rape for power. If anything, I found it an empowering scene, not problematic. It puts the cards right out on the table — the would-be rapist was just looking for power, sometimes authority will do more harm than good, and victims of sexual assault still have power and agency. 

Though it was hard for me to watch a lot of the scenes, the film does an excellent job of addressing the real people behind sexual assault. Lawrence’s character still has agency. She is not reduced to the woman-in-the-refrigerator trope that most films rely on for their sexual assault victims. She has still has power and ambition, despite what happened to her. 

Verdict If you’re looking for an action spy film starring Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs, I think you’ll have to wait. Right now, what you’ve got is a gripping thriller that addresses real issues of sexual assault, the ‘New Cold War’, and the struggle for and against the ties society thinks you should hold. 




9th March 2018 at 9:00 am

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