Red Sparrow - A Film and Book Review by Jennifer McDonald

Be the first to comment on this blog and we’ll send you Jen’s ‘one owner – low mileage’ print copy of Red SparrowHonestly, boring and predictable wasn’t quite the look I was going for with this blogpost, but it has to be said - the book Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is so much better than the film version starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.

This film story of Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose career is cut short by a horrific physical injury that’s not an accident. As the Bolshoi foots the bill for the apartment Dominika shares with her sick mother, and because Dominika can no longer dance for said ballet company, the two are about to become destitute when Dominika’s Uncle Vanya steps in. A high ranking official in the Russian spy bureaucracy, Vanya coerces his niece into Sparrow School where intelligence agents are trained, in the most sadistic and humiliating ways, in the art of ‘sexpionage’. (Just as an aside here, Charlotte Rampling plays the sadistic principal of this Dominika-described ‘whore school’ to a spine-chilling tee.) From there Dominika is sent to Budapest to become acquainted with CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who the Russian’s suspect is the handler of mole buried deep within their ranks.

The film gets a thorough bollocking from Luke Buckmaster in the Daily Review  who calls it ‘idealistically shallow’ and ‘intellectually putrid’. That’s certainly an eye-catching headline and one I’m not sure I agree with in total, but he does make some valid points. My vote for best quote in Buckmaster’s review is, “…maybe there is a bluff going on, or a double bluff, or a bluff of a double bluff. Boy, have we seen this movie before – usually with a modicum of chemistry between the two leads.” Ouch.

Kevin Fallon in the Daily Beast takes a slightly less pointy-ended approach in his March 1 article, questioning how it is Jennifer Lawrence is such a good actor when her films are so terrible.

I’m not a fan of overly graphic films. I guess that’s why I prefer books and loathe anything Quentin Tarantino. And while I’m not squeamish about blood and gore, I can’t un-see or un-hear the human responses to torture – and there’s a lot of physical, mental and emotional torture in the Red Sparrow movie.  While a number of those scenes are derived from Jason Matthews’ book, I’d go as far as to say they are gratuitous at best and downright grotesque at worst.

As is always the case with book-to-movie transitions certain scenes are merely embellished and others are fabricated to enhance the dramatic effect.  Unfortunately, the embellishments, fabrications and story changes in the movie version of Red Sparrow only serve to deplete any empathy the viewer might have developed for poor Dominika, a victim of an arcane, brutal, patriarchal system if ever there was one.  In his previously mentioned review Mr Buckmaster describes Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika as having an ‘eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour’. Ouch again and not entirely undeserved.

20180304 - Red-Sparrow BooktopiaThere is one scene early in the films that puts exclamation marks after this stark observation!! Remember how I told you Dominika’s ballet injury is not an accident?  Well, in both the book and the movie she is deliberately injured by her dance partner at the behest of his lover, another Bolshoi dancer who’d missed out on the prima ballerina role. When Dominika discovers her career-ending injury had been contrived, she sets her mind to exacting revenge.  Here’s where the book and the movie versions diverge.

In the book, the reader is made aware of the fact that the Bolshoi company strictly forbids its dancers from engaging in any type of extra-curricular relations. Dominika cleverly sets the lovers up to be discovered by a Bolshoi manager, which in turn leads to their expulsion from the company. She muses afterwards how little it took to ruin the lives of these two dancers, and how little remorse she felt for it.

However, in the movie there’s nothing clever about Dominika’s revenge – she bursts in on the lovers mid-coitus and beats the crap out of them with the walking stick she’s using during her own recovery. Any contextualisation of this act of unfettered violence (which, like many others in this movie, was overly graphic and drawn out) is confined to a moment when Dominika notices that the handle of her cane is covered in blood.

For my money, this is the starkest and the saddest example of how the movie fails to portray the complicated essence and motivations of our heroine/anti-heroine.

Clearly, there’s vastly more opportunity for nuance and context in Red Sparrow’s 547 print pages than in the movie even if the latter is two hours and 19 minutes long. In a bid to justify my boring-but-truthful ‘the book’s better’ opening comment I’d like to spend the last few paragraphs of this blogpost telling you why.

Red Sparrow’s author Jason Matthews is a retired officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now known as the oddly poetic-sounding National Clandestine Service.  As one might expect, the book’s descriptions of international intelligence gathering and espionage ‘tradecraft’ are detailed and compelling. Unsurprisingly, the book reeks of authenticity from start to finish. What did surprise me however, is the humanising and at times, amusing manner in which the book is written.

Don’t misunderstand me - there’s plenty of detailed descriptions of bloodlust, sexual violence and torture in Red Sparrow, but there are surprising moments of lightness and quirkiness too. A Russian operative ‘handling’ a high-maintenance US government mole in Washington fantasises about the good old days when informants who caused trouble where simply despatched in ‘accidental’ circumstances.

Or when our American spy, Nate Nash, apologises to our Russian spy, Dominika Egorova for inviting her to meet at an Afgan restaurant. ‘I was worried you would think I was being provocative,’ he said, to which she responds, ‘I do not think you are provocative.  You are an American, you cannot help yourself.’ But by far the quirkiest and most delightful thing about Red Sparrow (if one can call a spy thriller ‘delightful’) are the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter.  Yes, you heard right – recipes for something that has been consumed by one or more characters during the chapter.  ‘Blinis served at Vassily Egorova’s (Dominika’s father’s) wake’ appears at the end of Chapter 3. ‘MARBLE’s Rustic Tomato Pasta Sauce’ cooked in his own apartment no less, appears at the end of Chapter 30.

Once I got over the weirdness of seeing recipes in a spy novel, I realised how clever Matthews was to include them.  When all’s said and done, spies are still human beings who eat, drink, think and feel, despite their rigorous training and the daily skulduggery of their work. Humanising them in this way opened the door to a more thorough exploration of the characters’ underpinning beliefs and motivations for doing the shadowy, dangerous work they do.

Sheer genius in my opinion, and a pity this level of context and nuance didn’t have a hope of making it to the big screen.