Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

2016 #60
Steven Spielberg | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & India / English, German & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Supporting Actor.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design.



Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who is tapped to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After Donovan insists on doing his job properly, he manages to spare Abel the death penalty — which comes in handy when the Soviets capture spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and a prisoner exchange is suggested, which the Russians want Donovan to negotiate.

The most striking aspect of Bridge of Spies is how much it’s a mature, equanimous work. It would be easy to take a tale like this, fraught with issues of patriotism and the threat of foreign agents operating on domestic soil (which therefore screams “topical relevance!”), and give in to the same histrionics that some of the supporting characters demonstrate. Indeed, a director like Spielberg — oft criticised for the vein of sentimentality that is ever-present, and sometimes dominating, in his movies — might be expected to err in that direction, even if it was only slightly. The film itself manages to maintain the same calm demeanour as its two headline performances, however.

Don’t misconstrue that as meaning it’s a boring watch, however. Far from it. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, Bridge of Spies actually rattles through events, at times to a surprising degree: Abel’s trial is practically glossed over. In some respects this is an intelligent decision — the verdict is a foregone conclusion, and there’s far more going on than the trial of one spy — but it is a little jarring to have it so abruptly skipped past. The same effect occurs when Donovan appeals to the Supreme Court, a process so rushed its inclusion feels merited only by it being an event that happened so has to be there, rather than because it was a part of the story that interested Spielberg or screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen.

If we’re talking storytelling oddities, another is the manner in which Powers’ backstory is integrated. As Donovan continues to defend Abel, the film suddenly becomes subjected to scattered interjections, in which we see pilots being selected and then trained to fly secret reconnaissance missions in a new kind of plane. Any viewer who has read the blurb will know where this is going, but it’s so disconnected to the rest of the narrative that it felt misplaced, at least to me. The same is true when we suddenly meet Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student in Berlin who’s mistaken for a spy and arrested by the East. It turns out we need to know about him because Donovan attempts to use his negotiations to get a two-for-one deal, exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. Knowing the stories of the men Donovan will be negotiating for is not a bad point, but I can’t help but feel there was a smoother way to integrate them into the film’s overall narrative.

These clunks aside, Bridge of Spies is certainly a quality film. Spielberg’s direction is restrained, with familiar directorial flourishes severely limited (one very Spielbergian moment in the film’s coda sticks out precisely because of its Spielbergianness after 130 minutes of that not happening). That’s not to say his work is characterless, merely unobtrusive. The same is certainly true of Rylance’s Oscar-winning performance as the Soviet spy, so much so that some have asserted he was doing nothing at all and didn’t deserve any awards for it. Well, anyone at all familiar with Rylance’s oeuvre knows that can’t be true. His Abel is unquestionably understated, a calm and quiet man who only hints at emotions under the surface rather than declaiming them. A lesser film would’ve made a point of this — would’ve had Hanks’ lawyer struggling to understand and relate to his client’s low-key nature — but, instead, Donovan is a man who can identify with this mode of being, at least to an extent. There’s a reason they talk a couple of times about the ‘stoikiy muzhik’.

If the first part of the narrative belongs to Rylance, Hanks is in charge for the second, when Donovan finds himself in a wintery Berlin as the wall is being constructed, flitting between East and West as the go-between for a Russian spy posing as a diplomat, a German lawyer, and the CIA, who could care less about retrieving a lowly student when a pilot who might spill secrets is at stake. Also without being showy, Hanks is able to navigate a story that may be about secret international diplomacy, but which requires comedy without blatant mugging, and clever legal negotiation without grandstanding. Throughout the film, he creates in Donovan an upstanding, honourable, kind-hearted, and admirable human being, without the movie needing to make a song and dance about showing us how wonderful he is.

I may, on reflection, or re-watching, consider Bridge of Spies an even better film than I do now. Hanks and Rylance both offer nuanced performances, while Spielberg’s mastery of technique allows the whole film to be equally as subtle, even as it remains gripping and entertaining. However, the storytelling quirks are a mixed success, the pace they sometimes lend offset by the almost non sequitur style of the captured Americans’ backstories. Nonetheless, this is a classy but still enjoyable dramatic thriller, which takes a seat among Spielberg’s better works.

4 out of 5

Bridge of Spies is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and the rest, in the UK today.