This is a darn good spy movie. Directed by Francis Lawrence and based on a book written by Jason Matthews, who apparently once worked for the CIA, it is thrilling, fast-moving, with lots of twists and turns. The final twist is a neat one; I didn’t see it coming. Rather unusually for spy movies, this one is not set back in the Soviet era of the Cold War and the KGB, but in the modern, contemporary, Putin era of Russia. Not that this makes today’s Russian Intelligence operatives any nicer: they are as nasty and ruthless as ever.
The story concerns Dominika, a beautiful Russian ballerina who supports her elderly, sick mother with her earnings. An on-stage accident destroys her dancing career. She is approached by her uncle Ivan, an officer in Russian Intelligence. He offers her a job: become a “sparrow”, female Intelligence officers whose job is to get close to Western targets, using sex if necessary, then milk them of information. In the West, we would call such agents “honey traps”. At first highly reluctant, Dominika is blackmailed into accepting the offer. She is tasked with entrapping a CIA agent, Nate Nash, who is suspected of running a Russian mole code-named “Marble”. Dominika is introduced to Nash and they quickly strike up a sexual relationship. Nash quickly twigs she is a Russian agent. She confirms this to Nash, also telling him her job is to identify “Marble”. She becomes a double agent helping Nash. Or does she? Her true loyalties and motivations remain a tantalising mystery until quite late in the movie. It’s a riveting tale that spirals through twists and turns, keeping you on the edge of your seat until the surprise, and intriguingly ambiguous, ending.
The cast is superb. As Dominika, we have the excellent Jennifer Lawrence. She has grown up a lot since the “Hunger Games” movies, and here she plays the sexy, dangerous yet damaged spy very well indeed. As Nash, the CIA man, we have the Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. Matthias Schoenaerts is suitably sinister and threatening as the blackmailing uncle Ivan. Charlotte Rampling is brilliant and ruthless as the tough, uncompromising matron in charge of the student “sparrows”. Jeremy Irons plays General Vladimir Korchnoi, a senior Russian officer who has his own hidden agenda. Irons is a dependable English actor who has been around for years. It’s really good to see him in the movies again. All the supporting actors do a really good job in helping the story along.
Direction is good. The film looks good. It was filmed largely in central Europe, and has that lush, Continental look about it. Some of the winter sequences filmed in European snowfields are quite beautiful. Because the original writer of the novel had CIA experience, the espionage sequences of the movie ring true and are quite convincing.
Now, Jennifer Lawrence is a beautiful and sexy woman, so it is perhaps inevitable the moviemakers wanted to use her sex appeal along with her acting abilities. She has nude scenes, she often wears revealing costumes, she is involved in sex scenes, even a rape. When her loyalties are doubted by her Russian masters, she is tortured but survives. What are we to make of all this in the current era of “Me Too”? It can be argued that these scenes are gratuitous and exploitative of a beautiful woman. On the other hand, the moviemakers might argue that this merely demonstrates the ruthless, inhuman methods Intelligence services use. According to Wikipedia, Jennifer Lawrence was offered the opportunity to have scenes she found offensive cut from the movie, but declined the offer. One would have to imagine that she was extremely well paid – and rightly so – for her efforts in the film. One thing is for sure: if you don’t like sex and violence in its more graphic forms, don’t go to this movie. But then, it should be noted that the male characters, particularly Nash, also suffer graphic violence and torture. At least the violence is gender-balanced.
The extent of the sex and violence in this film has made me hesitate over how to rate it. It’s also a little too long, at well over two hours, although I didn’t find time hanging heavily – I was on the edge of my seat throughout the film. In the end, though I have misgivings about the use of sex and violence in the movie and have reduced my star rating a little because of it, I am ultimately persuaded that the ruthless and unforgiving nature of the story and its major characters justify these extreme scenes, by a very narrow margin. Modern espionage is not pretty.
Provided you can stomach its sex and violence, the lover of spy movies will find this film a rattling good yarn.
My star rating: 4-and- a- quarter stars out of 5.