The Cold War didn’t end, it just bought nicer underwear. That may sound glib, but when the trailer for a complex espionage thriller shows its female star constantly disrobing or parading in a low-cut swimsuit viewers could be forgiven for thinking the film’s working title was Victoria’s Secret Army.
However, by focusing so blatantly on Jennifer Lawrence’s body, highlighting her role as an ice maiden spy schooled in the art of seduction, the advance marketing runs the risk of overlooking the film’s true strengths. Red Sparrow is as fantastically taut and as elaborately plotted as the award-winning Jason Matthews novel upon which it is based, taking glee in piling on the double- and triple-crosses, and wrong-footing us in every reel.
Lawrence plays prima ballerina Dominika Egorova, the toast of Moscow until a shocking injury puts paid to her dancing career (her onstage fall is only the first of many gruesome scenes in an extraordinarily violent movie). With a sick mother to care for, she is steered towards a new calling by her manipulative uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in the intelligence service of a Russia still licking its wounds after the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
Dominika reluctantly becomes a “Sparrow”, joining other young men and women with model looks trained to use their sexuality to infiltrate the enemy, but her emergence as a modern-day Mata Hari (both mentored and humiliated by a clinically schoolmarm-ish Charlotte Rampling) is far from the whole story. Superiors begin to suspect she’s serving herself more than the state, and may well be in cahoots with the CIA operative (Joel Edgerton) she was assigned to seduce.
There are no clues to Dominika’s allegiance or intentions in Lawrence’s steely performance, or at least none that last for more than a few fleeting minutes. Apart from an early scene where she exacts swift and bloody revenge on the dancers who conspired bring her down, Dominika is an enigma throughout, the actress’s expressionless face giving nothing away.
The treatment she suffers at the hands of her fellow Russians, either during lessons and role-playing at Sparrow school or once despatched into the field, is appalling; on the other hand, the speed at which this glamorous pawn strikes up an intimate, cards-on-the-table relationship with her American target can’t help but sound alarm bells. It’s to the credit of both director Francis Lawrence and his namesake leading lady that we’re left guessing until the final scenes.
Although it’s set in contemporary times with its attendant technology (mobile phones and laptops are integral to the story), Red Sparrow has the bleak, moody look of a spy thriller from a much earlier era. Russia and other key Eastern European locations are suitably cold, drab and unforgiving, links to the country’s previous regimes are further established by Jeremy Irons’s equally enigmatic intelligence general, who informs Dominika that his father served under Stalin. Even scenes set in shiny 21st-century London give the impression that George Smiley might pop up at any moment.
It’s this atmosphere of detachment, a dramatic landscape in which emotions remain firmly hidden, that propels a narrative which, although awash with potentially confusing plot twists, keeps the viewer both gripped and guessing. Irons especially makes hay as the elder statesman who may or may not be pulling everyone’s strings, although every character is required to be relentlessly grim, with the exception of Mary Louise-Parker providing a (very) brief comic interlude as a boozy would-be double agent.
Understandably, given the subject matter, the film is extremely light on laughs, yet the sporadic outbreaks of graphic violence are still unsettling and rarely telegraphed in advance. Not for director Francis the espionage potboilers of old where characters exchange coded sentences while sat on park benches; this is a ruthless, cruel world populated by figures for whom no act or instruction is tempered by moral considerations or basic humanity.
For all the elegance and lingerie flagged up in those trailers, it’s probably Lawrence’s most intense and demanding role since her breakthrough in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, the film that earned her the first of four Oscar nominations. For every scene in which she’s dolled up to the nines there’s a corresponding one that shows her struggling against oppressive paymasters and exposed to the viciousness of global power games, but this particular Sparrow charts her own flight path with determination and admirable dignity.
Red Sparrow is released in cinemas on Thursday 1 March