Red Sparrow: empowering but inconsistent

Aoife O'Brien

The release of Francis Lawrence’s film, Red Sparrow has received a series of mixed reviews since its initial release on February 28, 2018.

While some have hailed the film as a daring tale of female empowerment, others have criticised it as an exploitative reinforcement of misogynistic stereotypes.

Adapted from a novel by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews, this spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence tells the story of Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina who suffers a career ending injury and is forced to enlist into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialise in seducing their targets.

This training program for ‘sparrows’, which is based on a Sparrow School in Kazan during the Cold War, is where the film is at its most sensational. The assassins are stripped of everything and taught to use their bodies which “belong to the state” as weapons.

However, while sparrows are trained to use sex to exploit their targets, Dominika, the most successful sparrow, rarely sleeps with them.

She gets what she wants by teasing her targets, creating the illusion of the possibility of sex, providing a compelling argument that women can use their sex appeal without giving men the right to sleep with them.

In one of the most empowering scenes in the film, Dominka is asked to strip in front of the class. Here we see Lawrence command control of her naked image, something she said was “incredibly important” in changing her mentality following her insecurities over her 2014 photo hack.

The film does however, lose some of its credibility due to the stark amount of sexual violence depicted throughout. While this violence is used to alarm rather than to titillate it changes the tone of the story from one of empowerment in defiance of psychological perversion to humiliation in the face of physical abuse.

Red Sparrow fails to commit to the dehumanising effects of the training school and instead by emphasising the sexual violence, gives the appearance that directors believed the actual humiliation that took place was not good enough, not serious enough to captivate audiences.

Lawrence is undoubtedly the star of the film and her performance is at its most powerful when we actually get to see her training put into action.

Her exchange with chief of staff to the United States senator, played by Mary-Louise Parker is a particular highlight. Parker, who is far too drunk to realise she is not as slick as she thinks breathes some much needed humour into the film. Here, we finally get to see Lawrence, who has been so often victimised throughout the movie, in action as the Sparrow she is heralded to be.

While Red Sparrow certainly won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes, it is significantly different to other films in the spy genre, focusing on a single character’s personal struggle rather than on politics or an action based plot. This unique concept and original story line make Red Sparrow well worth a watch.