'Red Sparrow' Review: An Overlong Waste Of Jennifer Lawrence's Talent

The new faux-Hitchcockian thriller Red Sparrow has the dubious honor of both being too overheated and too sterile to have any impact. Granted, Red Sparrow does have the pedigree of A-lister Jennifer Lawrence playing the conflicted lead, as well as the undeniable sense that this is the kind of prestige-striving film for adults that is rarely made or released outside of awards season. But the end result is flaccid, more convinced of its intelligence than it should be, and painfully overlong.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina in the Bolshoi who suffers a career-ending injury thanks to a clumsy dance partner in the pre-title sequence. Soon after, her enigmatic uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) convinces Dominika that if she wants her ill mother (Joely Richardson) to keep receiving health care, she'll have to show her worth to the Russian state. In short, Dominika is recruited to become a spy known as a "sparrow," working to seduce and manipulate the enemy. (Dominika, upon leaving her punishing training, dubs it "whore school.")

It's clear relatively early — when Dominika learns that her dance partner deliberately injured her, she beats him and his paramour bloody with her cane — that this young woman's skillset fits in quite well with being a secret agent. Soon, Dominika is sent on a mission to ferret out a Russian mole working with Nate Nash, a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton), but complications arise when she begins to have romantic feelings for Nate.

Or does she? The question of how much we can trust Dominika or Nate, or how much they can trust each other, is at the core of Red Sparrow. However, Justin Haythe's script, based on the novel of the same name, takes a while to approach that core. Much of the first hour depicts Dominika as she spends time at the so-called "whore school," overseen by a matron played by the ever-imperious Charlotte Rampling. Dominika's name suggests the dominant spirit that she displays at the school, refusing to allow a classmate to rape her (either in private or during class as part of a warped lesson on giving the enemy what they want to gain access to their secrets). Perhaps if the opening section didn't feature Dominika wailing on her ballet partner for the injury, we might need evidence that she's got the ability to be a spy. As it stands, the story flounders before Dominika and Nate connect in Budapest and her mission truly begins. Here lies a 90-minute story in a 140-minute package.

Red Sparrow struggles to step out of the shadows of far better films and filmmakers. Some of the setup, as well as Dominika's choice to dye her hair blonde to better catch Nate's attention, calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock's many thrillers. Specifically, a good chunk of this movie owes a large debt to Notorious, from the relationship between a European national and an American spy, the question of who's on which side, and the 1946 film's deliciously wicked final moments. On one hand, kudos to director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer, though he did direct the last few Hunger Games films) for taking inspiration from Notorious. On the other hand, Notorious is one of the greatest films ever made, so it's more foolhardy than brave to crib from a classic.

There's a slightly similar upside and downside to watching Jennifer Lawrence in this film. Once you get past the fact that none of the major actors in this film are using their own accents (Edgerton is Australian, and UK actors like Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds barely try to sound Russian despite playing higher-ups in the state), it's easier to focus on the performances. But Lawrence is so implacable as Dominika that it's difficult to buy her relationship with Edgerton's Nate. That implacability extends all the way to the overall film, which seems both too chilly and too cautious to make clear whether or not Red Sparrow is the story of a young woman recruited to a truly nefarious side of the battle for global domination, or the story of a spy willing to come in from the cold. Red Sparrow desperately needs to thaw out.

Jennifer Lawrence remains one of the more talented actresses of her generation, in spite of having a habit of starring in movies that don't quite come together enough to deserve her prodigious skills. Last fall, of course, she starred in the wild and baffling Darren Aronofsky film mother!, which was ridiculous but felt much more courageous in its convictions. Red Sparrow is vastly more conventional, no matter how much it wants to be full of rug-pulling twists. (There's only so many characters who could be revealed as the Russian mole, and when the surprise is unveiled, it's done with as little panache as possible.) Lawrence's range remains impressive, but films like Red Sparrow are too derivative and hollow to be worthy of her.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10