“Red Sparrow” is a thoroughly entertaining movie that stays fresh and interesting for all of its two-hours-plus running time. But what kicks it into a higher level is that it’s a terrific vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, one of the few movie stars who deserves one, who is a film star in the classic sense.
So, yes, it’s a movie about spying, but it’s just as much a movie about Jennifer Lawrence going around jennifer-lawrencing it up all over the place. The story construction is laudable; the supporting roles and even the bit roles are superbly cast and played. But in the moment the movie is just as much about Lawrence looking out the window, or beating up people with a golf club, or projecting blank-faced composure and extreme agitation, a combination she can do better than anybody.
She plays a Russian ballerina, which should be ridiculous, and partly is — that is, the ballerina part. Dominika (Lawrence) is the Bolshoi’s No. 1 talent, which means that we see her dance, and she’s probably the least convincing ballet star since Greta Garbo in “Grand Hotel.” Yet with a movie like this, there is a double thing going on: We’re watching a character, sure, but we’re also watching an actress do new things. So it’s fun to see her take a flying leap and only get six inches off the ground, just as it comes as a relief — to her as much as the audience — when she breaks her leg onstage and has to stop.
Actually, Dominika does more than break it. She shatters it, which means she must make a new life for herself. Lucky for her — though she doesn’t see it that way — she has a career option already waiting. Her Putin-look-alike uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) is head of the Russian spy network, and he thinks she’d be a great addition to the team.
Most movies about spying make it look glamorous. There’s lots of paid travel to the world’s great cities, and you get to build up your frequent-flyer miles. But “Red Sparrow” presents spying as a profession, one that takes training, both psychological and practical, and one that is fundamentally gross. Spies learn to pick every different kind of lock and read people’s motives — that could be fun. But they also get trained in how to have sex with people who revolt them in every possible way.
Charlotte Rampling plays “Matron,” the head of the women’s spy school, and she doesn’t stop scowling once. “The Americans are drunk on shopping and social media,” she tells her students, which means a clear field for Russia to dominate. It’s an ideal role for Rampling, not only because she can stare down anybody, but because we can imagine she’s playing the same character she played from “The Night Porter,” only 40 very angry years later.
“Red Sparrow” maintains some of the alluring aspects of a spy thriller. It has a lush soundtrack from James Newton Howard, which sounds like neo-’50s romanticism by way of the 1990s. The movie takes Dominika to Vienna, to Budapest and to London, and we go with her; and there’s lot of intrigue and seduction. But the engine of the movie is Dominika’s horror at her own life — at losing her calling and at serving a government that she despises.
It’s the kind of thing that Lawrence does well and almost instinctively, a down-to-earth and barely expressed moral outrage. She had that quality in the “Hunger Games” series, but those movies weren’t serious. “Red Sparrow” isn’t exactly serious, either, but it’s adult; and Lawrence gives it everything, never letting go of the driving emotion, her desire to get out and get even.
Francis Lawrence (no relation) directed. He made the brilliant “Water for Elephants” in 2011 and has since made a lot of unfortunate movies, including three “Hunger Games” entries. But he’s back, getting quality performances from Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Joel Edgerton and Bill Camp.
One of the marks of good direction is attention to small detail. If you see “Red Sparrow,” note the meticulous handling of the character played by Mary-Louise Parker, the chief of staff of a powerful senator. Note the details that she brought to the role and the director highlighted. Parker is in the movie for maybe five minutes, but those are five great minutes.