The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.
Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”
Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.
Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.
Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.
There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.
It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.
Nate’s Grade: C
While you watch The Danish Girl, you can feel the full weight of everybody’s good intentions. The filmmakers and cast all seem to realize that they are telling a story that will humanize and help others better understand trans issues. It’s the first sexual reassignment surgery and a community that is still fighting for wider acceptance. Nobody wants to screw up this story and do a disservice to representing the stories of the trans community. You feel the earnest good intentions with every frame, and yet I would argue those same good intentions end up paralyzing the movie and its impact.
Lili Erbe (Eddie Redmayne) is living her life as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown in the 1920s. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is a portrait artist trying to be more than the wife of a famous painter. One day, Gerda’s model is absent and she asks Einar to step in. He puts on stockings, holds a gown to his body, and it’s a revelation. Soon after Einar is wearing women’s garments under his clothes and Gerda dresses him up with makeup and a wig. It’s a fun diversion and something of a turn-on for Gerda, and then her husband informs her that Lili isn’t the costume, Einar is. Lili tries to find a sense of explanation with disdainful psychiatrists and doctors but is deemed aberrant. Lili is struggling with this crisis of identity and self-acceptance, and then a new beginning emerges with a helpful doctor who can physically transform Lili from a man into a woman. The surgery is not without risk but Lili is willing to do whatever it takes to feel whole (note: since Lili is the chosen gender identity for the film’s subject, I shall be referring to her as Lili and using feminine pronouns).
Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) gives a suitably affecting performance that is full of empathy and a halting sense of fragility. He seems like he’s about to crumble at any moment, his nervous smile and pleading and confused eyes communicating Lili’s trepidation and flights of exciting discovery. Redmayne’s delicate androgynous features and long-limbed dancer’s body play to his strengths, as he adjusts his physicality to reflect his mind’s experimentation of what it would be like to be a woman. There’s a rather lovely visual where Lili visits a peep show in Paris. After a few minutes of bashful eye contact, she begins to mimic the peep show model’s physical poses, and the camera’s focus melts between the two. It feels like a dance between the two and in this simple visual much is communicated. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie lacks the impact of this poignant visual. Redmayne too often retreats into his stable of nervous gesticulations and halted speech. It’s a performance that feels too detached and too opaque to make you feel the full turmoil of Lili. There’s an interesting moment when, dressed as Lili, a smitten man kisses her without permission. Lili is upset at the lack of consideration, to which the man replies, “I couldn’t chance you saying no.” That little moment highlights the challenges of women in a society that doesn’t respect their agency. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t present more scenes that explore this new dynamic that Lili will have to adjust to. Instead the move repeatedly falls back on her as Brave and Strong. As presented, Lili is more catalyst than a fleshed-out character, which is remarkable considering the movie is reportedly about her struggles. Rather, the real focus of the story seems to be Gerda, who, incidentally, is the only person on screen referred to as “the Danish girl.”
Gerda is given equal attention in the screen adaptation by Lucinda Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White), which is generous and will likely leave several viewers confused. First, Gerda is given the most complete character arc and a surprising amount of consideration for her perspective. I suppose she could be the audience’s entry point into this story, the relatable position for many audience members trying to better understand a loved one saying they were born in the wrong body. The movie presents greater empathy for Gerda’s plight than it does Lili, which is definitely unexpected and perhaps misplaced. Surely finding the courage to embrace a controversial identity that precious few will even acknowledge, let alone the bastions of contemporary medical science declaring such thinking to be signs of a degenerative brain, is a bit more of a risk than being a supportive spouse. I don’t want to mitigate Gerda’s own personal struggles dealing with the outward transformation of Einar into Lili. It’s a position that deserves deep empathy and the movie has it in spades, as we watch Gerda try to be supportive while the person she fell in love with erases himself. Vikander (Ex Machina) also kills it. Her performance is full of the breadth of emotions that I found wanting in her screen partner. Vikander’s face registers all the complicated emotions; she’s in a sense saying goodbye to her husband and a specific life they shared, and while for her it can feel like mourning, for Lili it is a rebirth. Viankder’s compassionate and nuanced performance as Gerda is the exclamation on one hell of a year for the Swedish actress.
Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) gives everything the proper stately appearance with his signature visual indulgences (the man loves his asymmetrical one-shots and generous head room in the camera frame). There are several landscapes or venues that look gorgeous or given a dream-like sense just from Hooper’s framing. His handling of his actors is first-rate, and there’s a comfortable sensuality to scenes between Einar and Gerda, further communicating just how enraptured each is with the other. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a bit over excited to explain all the many emotions you should be feeling, but other than that the technical aspects of The Danish Girl are pleasing to the senses and enhance the story. I just wish the screenplay gave us so much more to think about when it comes to Lili.
As a strange aside, I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.
Tasteful to a fault, The Danish Girl is a reserved biopic that goes about its story with a sincere and earnest sense of responsibility. It wants to tell its story correctly instead of telling its story in the best-developed and executed fashion, and there is a difference. The performances are strong, though Viankder is the standout as the film’s surprising focus. Redmayne feels too timid and fragile to make Lili’s story resonate beyond common human compassion. The screenplay doesn’t place us insider her mind. Instead, we’re treated more to how Lili’s choices are impacting her supportive but anguished wife. In 1930, a mere four months after the fourth and final surgery, Lili died from complications related to the operation, lending a greater sense of tragedy (this fact is left out of the concluding text). It’s a movie that feels too distant even from itself. Everything is so reserved, so tasteful, so artfully opaque, so afraid of making the wrong step that The Danish Girl ends up being an Oscar-bait biopic that feels too hesitant and bloodless.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The French film Rust and Bone’s U.S. release seemed to hinge entirely on whether star Marion Cotillard would garner a coveted Oscar nomination. When that didn’t happen, it seemed like the studio just threw up its hands and said, “Well, that’s it.” Rust and Bone, co-written and directed by A Prophet’s Jaques Audiard, has been given a very ignoble release, an afterthought for an awards season that didn’t go Cotillard’s way. While I would have nominated Cotillard for her powerful performance, I certainly wouldn’t think much else about Rust and Bone, a frustrating film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling or what movie it wishes to be.
Alain van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is struggling to take care of him self and his young son, Sam. Alain’s ex-wife, and Sam’s mother, used the boy as part of her drug trades. Alain moves in with his sister and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. It’s at the club where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a marine trainer. She’s also feisty and getting kicked out for starting a fight. Stephanie works at a Sea World-esque water park, and one horrific day one of the whales makes a wrong turn. It runs into the stage, knocking Stephanie unconscious into the water where, we learn, a whale has eaten her legs below her knee. She contacts Alain and the two form an unlikely friendship, one that turns physical as Stephanie worries what her sexual performance will be like under her new circumstances. Alain dreams of becoming a professional kick boxer/MMA fighter, and he performs in underground fights as another means of income. Stephanie tags along and helps motivate him win his fights. The two grow closer, but Alain struggles with what real feelings might mean.
Rust and Bone has a serious case of multiple personality disorder. It looks like it’s going to be one movie, then all of a sudden it changes into another, and then when you think you’ve got a handle on that, it suddenly transforms into another. I’m perfectly fine with a movie switching gears suddenly, however, with Rust and Bone, I felt like I was getting three different half-hearted drafts rather than an actual movie. I went into the film knowing little other than the selling point, that Cotillard was playing a woman readjusting to life after a freak accident took her legs. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I didn’t get a shred of this. I got a single father trying to scrape together what he could for himself and his son, often resorting to sneaky and illegal measures. Then shortly after Stephanie is introduced, the movie becomes all about her. We’re dealing with her recovery and her anger and her loss. Just when I think I’ve settled onto the narrative direction of the movie, it becomes Alain’s movie again. Now we’re following his budding career as an amateur kick boxer, with Stephanie as his cheerleader. Then she dissolves into the background of the movie yet again, and it’s all about him. I don’t think the movie knew which character it wanted to be its focal point, so we get a sloppy interspersing of storylines vying for dominance. Personally, I was much more invested and intrigued by Stephanie’s recovery than anything having to do with Alain trying to be a better father and failing. Then there’s other muddled storylines like hidden cameras in the workplace that only further distract. It’s just all too much and at the same time not enough.
Then there’s the matter of the romance between Stephanie and Alain. I suppose you could say they are both wounded people trying to gain a greater sense of independence, battling new concepts of self-identity, but I think I’m doing the film too many favors. The sad part is that these two people are extremely shallow and limited form a characterization standpoint. The only defining quality about Stephanie is her injury. Sure she’s feisty and can get into bar fights, and that fact that she’s attracted to Alain says something about her, but really, her only characterization is her new physical limitations and her adjustment to them. Her physical needs are given much more attention by the screenplay than her emotional resonance. It makes me sound like a hardhearted bastard but I’ve said it before, I need characters that have more depth to them other than that they suffer. Alain, on the other hand, is even worse. He’s a pretty flat character who’s actually a really terrible father. He loses his temper easily, chooses quick sex over picking up his kid at school, plus there’s the whole abandonment thing. It’s hard for me to believe that anything really sinks in with this lunkhead. His relationship with Stephanie, meant to open him up, instead reconfirms what a jerk he is. He uses women as sexual playthings, and treats Stephanie with this same careless abandon. He clearly doesn’t see her as anything but a comfortable fling, which he shows through his actions. If Alain’s romantic views have changed, the film doesn’t show any of this progression. I didn’t care about him and I certainly didn’t care about the two of them together.
Acting-wise, Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises) is quite moving throughout as she tries to come to grips with everything that has been taken from her. Her more traditionally dramatic crying scenes are powerful, sure, but it’s the quiet moments that Cotillard nails. There’s a moment where she goes through her former routines hand motions, and in that moment, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” it becomes clear she is moving beyond her accident, accepting and getting stronger. It’s a subtle celebration of the human spirit’s ability to rebound, and Cotillard makes sure the moment is moving rather than cheesy. Also, there’s a very tender moment when she returns to the water park and reunites with the whale that took her legs. Through the glass, she goes through her training motions and the whale still resounds accordingly to her commands. It’s a wordless, touching moment that communicates so much, the nature of forgiveness, the culpability of an animal, but really about the connection between man and nature. Also, the fact that these two scenes are available on YouTube means somebody else must have seen them as standouts as well. She’s also naked frequently, if that matters to you.
Schoenhaerts (Bullhead) is too opaque for his own good. He seems to settle for his brute physicality, and as such the movie does little to flesh him out further. He has a couple nice moments, especially at the film’s climax, but it’s too little to overturn the prevailing notion that his character is unworthy of co-lead status.
Probably the most impressive thing from Audiard’s film is the special effects to remove Cotillard’s legs. While the technology doesn’t seem like it has changed since Lt. Dan’s days in 1994, it’s still a striking image to process. I’m still wondering why exactly Stepheanie gets tattoos on her (remaining) thighs, reading “Right” and “Left.” Is she worried about going under the knife and the doctors taking more away from the wrong limb? That seems past the point of return. With the special effects technology, and the film’s quotient for sweaty sex scenes, this is the art house equivalent of erotica for those discerning few with amputation fetishes.
When it came time to determine which film would compete at the Academy Awards, France chose the feel-good buddy comedy The Intouchables over Rust and Bone. It’s easy to see why. Except for Cotillard’s fierce performance, and some spiffy special effects, there is nothing remarkable about this ultimately frustrating and shallow movie. The mismatched love story between Stephanie and Alain feels implausible and too focused on surface-level desires; not enough to justify some statement of personal growth on both their parts. There needed to be a complete restructuring of the screenplay. Too often it keeps switching focus, changing gears, mixing in other subplots until it all feels like one big mess lacking firm direction. I might have loved a movie that focused on Stephanie and her recovery, perhaps even one about Alain, though I doubt it. What Rust and Bone offers is a movie that’s persistently in doubt of its own identity, trying its hand at everything, forging necessary care to its lead characters. It’s a fine film that could have been a great one, if only it really knew what it wanted to be in the first place.
Nate’s Grade: C+