The movie opens nicely, with two parallel action events that upend her plans and set the plot in motion.
In one, Dominika suffers a career-ending injury during a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. In the other, a Moscow-based American spy has a late-night rendezvous with a Russian mole in Gorky Park and comes to the attention of Russia’s SVR, successor of the KGB.
These two meet up later, but the in-between is pretty detailed.
Mostly we learn about Dominika. First, her Uncle Ivan, (Matthias Schoenaerts), a nasty big shot with the SVR, orders her to seduce one of his colleagues and steal the man’s cellphone. Actually, the plan is more devious. The colleague is assassinated as he is raping Dominika in a fancy hotel room.
Then, with Dominika compromised, her uncle says the only way to keep her modest apartment and her mother’s healthcare is for her to go State School 4, which will train her to be a “sparrow,” a ruthless secret agent.
One question the film does not consider is whether a beautiful Bolshoi star really has no other options — like teaching, coaching or becoming an oligarch’s trophy wife — at the end of her performing career.
But this would mess with the plot, and the movie wouldn’t be able to show us the degradation Dominika suffers in what she calls “whore school.” (Plus there would be fewer opportunities to see Jennifer Lawrence naked and in various states of deshabille.)
Dominika’s resentment and anger build and drive her behavior as the movie’s plot spools out.
What the Russians most want is to know is the name of the American spy’s contact inside the Russian government. In school and at work, Dominika has demonstrated that she’s really good at the spy game, and so she is sent to Budapest to cultivate the spy and get the information out of him.
Along the way there are side plots and some torture-porn, and the whole thing gets resolved.
I don’t want to be a jerk here because, prurient content aside, the movie is well made and handsomely photographed. Its directors or producers managed to recruit a couple of veteran actors to appear: Charlotte Rampling is the single-note cold-hearted Sparrow School administrator, and Jeremy Irons plays an upper-level SVR executive with the accent of an Oxford don.
In fact, “Red Sparrow” isn’t doing all that well, and it may indicate that the spy film genre is losing its credibility. My personal view is that governments aren’t all that efficient or clever, although my experience is limited to mundane functions like mail delivery, policing, schooling and zoning departments. Maybe super-effective spies are being replaced by superheroes whose talents are broadly understood to be fictional at the outset.
I didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night and don’t have a point of view about who won or who wore which designer gown.
The Oscars started 90 years ago as a way to promote the film industry. Now there are dozens of film award-awarding organizations in the US and many others around the world.
In addition, other groups give awards for their own reasons. A publisher started the Mann (now Mann Booker) Prize to promote the book business. Joseph Pulitzer inaugurated the Pulitzer Prizes to glorify newspapering.
The problem, for me, is the prizes don’t reflect excellence. They are the judgments of humans whose views are influenced by the reputations of studios or publications, and by the cultural winds of their given moments.
We will know the best movies and books and reporting by what survives and is respected many years later. I am content to wait and see.