The Guardian review of Red Sparrow as a “perverse Jennifer Lawrence thriller” highlights mainstream media’s failings

The Guardian review of Red Sparrow starts with an error in the first line: “a seductive assassin”. Not so. A reluctant spy, maybe, but even that is overstating 90% of the movie.

There are spoilers below, but every fan of the Lawrences will have seen the movie by now.

Jennifer Lawrence filled the screen with Dominika’s evolution

And the third line of the review says there’s “surprisingly extreme sex and violence”. Again, not so. There is sexual aggression and attempted rape, but the violence is not comic-book. The redeeming aspect throughout the film is showing the effects of such extreme violence.

The film doesn’t go off into the over-done detective mastermind scenario, nor the weepy soap scenario. Instead, the film stays with Jennifer Lawrence’s character, masterfully showing the effects of such sexuality and violence on a person who grew up in a family where power is always tinged with violence.

The review also says, “throughout, there’s a shocking willingness to go to the very edge of what’s acceptable in a contemporary studio movie.” Compared to what? Mostly what’s acceptable in contemporary studio movies is a level of violence which is both extremely graphic (but only as CGI) and extremely stupid. The average studio movie hero is tortured by ‘experts’ for hours and yet is never impeded in subsequently killing or neutralising a dozen supposed trained soldiers or guards or bodybuilders or thugs. Single-handedly and, apparently, avoiding all 60,000 rounds of ammunition fired in the process.

The review appears to complain about “graphic torture” in Red Sparrow. No. All Red Sparrow does is show you what torture is like in the real world. Torture hurts, terribly. Even a few minutes hurt terribly. So the Lawrences show the effects on real people of such terrible actions. And, importantly, that they don’t recover in two minutes and are capable of extraordinary physical feats.

No. The movie shows what people with intelligence could or might do if they are confronted with such situations.

The review is also confused about sexuality on the movie: “While some sexual content is portrayed with stunning frankness, other scenes are neutered.” Again, we’re dealing with real people, not comic-book characters or porn actors. Sometimes sex is all you might expect, other times it’s flawed. Sometimes it’s for the “right” reason, other times it’s all over the place. The movie balances those shades of the spectrum perfectly.

Then the review attacks director Francis Lawrence: “The direction feels flat and passionless at times and while there are some impressive panoramic vistas, other stuffier scenes are so overly, clumsily lit that they’re clearly taking place on a set.” Here, the reviewer has now added director as well as cinematographer to his CV as a scriptwriter – and knows better than those who worked on the movie.

Ah, and now the reviewer is also a casting agent: “But the decision to cast so many British and Irish actors in small roles (Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, Douglas Hodge, etc).” Rampling and Irons are central characters, and both act the human roles perfectly. They are not meant to be super-human and don’t have to be on screen the whole time to be major roles.

Further: “there’s also a horribly misjudged comic turn from Mary-Louise Parker that feels grafted on from an entirely different film.” Nope. It’s not comic and it’s not misjudged. It’s someone completely out of their depth and stumbling through an experience they have no training for. And so fail for all the usual reasons – no preparation, clumsiness, alcohol ‘fortitude’ and wrong place, wrong time.

It’s like reviewer Benjamin Lee had reverse goggles on while watching the movie. “It remains largely impossible to emotionally invest in Lawrence’s character (the remoteness, while effective, prevents us from feeling like she’s a real person)”. Remoteness? The Lawrences filled the screen with Dominika’s evolution as she grapples with her milieu, her personal plight, her family, her country and her inner grit. Sometimes she feels in control, other times life moves way outside her control. And everything in between. So yes, it’s a rollercoaster of images and impressions and moods and blurred edges. Like real life.

The reviewer concludes: “It’s also surprisingly low on action, choosing talkiness over more audience-pleasing mayhem.” Maybe it’s surprising to the reviewer that many movie-goers don’t need “contemporary studio movie” superheroes and James Bonds every time, with CGI violence and mayhem. We don’t need to rush headlong to the summit, but can be happy meandering along and appreciating the view on the way.

And the review’s last line is also wrong. “It’s just not quite as seductive as it thinks it is.” It’s impossible to know what the reviewer is basing this comment on. Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy is not a seductive movie, and nor is Red Sparrow.

To my eyes, Red Sparrow is what I love about movies that include a healthy dose of real life — with intriguing noir and captivating thriller elements driving the plot and, of course, sub-plots.

5 stars


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