Jennifer Lawrence joins the movie pantheon of hard-kicking female spies that includes Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde and Anne Parillaud's Nikita when the post-Cold War thriller Red Sparrow opens in cinemas this weekend.
The film stars Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina who is coerced into working for the Russian secret services following a career-ending injury. A web of intrigue, seduction and double-crossing develops as moles, double-agents and corrupt politicians become the world in which Egorova moves.
The vampy female spy is nothing new in the history of cinema, but director Francis Lawrence, who reunites with his Hunger Games muse Lawrence (no relation) for the movie, insists Red Sparrow isn't your typical spy thriller.
“What I really love about the movie [is that] it doesn’t land where you expect a spy movie to land,” he says.
"You have the sort of Tinker Tailors, which are very political and dense, and then you've got the kind of Bond, Bourne, gadgety action movies. This one is sort of in its own zone because it's really a personal character story, and she really is trying to survive."
Lawrence's leading lady agrees that the movie is very much a character-driven affair, in large part thanks to the novel of the same name on which the film is based: "The entire book that Jason Matthews wrote is filled with characters who are complex," the actress says. "Everybody in this movie, and every character, Russian or American, is there for a myriad of reasons: for their country, for loyalty, for ambition."
Director Lawrence is also a fan of Matthews’ book, and even recommends the former CIA agent as a perfect dinner guest: “I don’t know every detail about Jason’s experiences, but I can say he’s a really fascinating guy to have dinner with,” he says with a laugh. “It’s true that he and his wife were active CIA spies and travelled around the world. I think they spent a bunch of time in Rome, a bunch of time in Budapest, where we actually shot the film, and they tell crazy stories about doing drops out of moving cars and trying to find infiltrators back in the 1980s, unbelievable stories.”
Lawrence cites her character's relationship with her leading man, Joel Edgerton's CIA operative Nate Nash, as a prime example of the book and the movie's complex characters and interactions. "The relationship between Dominika and Nate is fuelled with passion and chemistry, but also deception," she says. "They're both experts at manipulating others and both wary of being deceived, so it's practically impossible to know what they're really thinking."
The movie attracted some criticism on its US release earlier this month for its graphic scenes of torture and violence and, in particular, the objectification of Lawrence's lead character. Director Lawrence says the film is much more than a voyeuristic spy-seduction tease. "I think the movie will be surprising to people in the sense that there's much less obvious seduction than people might think. When you see a set-up for a movie like this, you think that the character's going to dress sexily and wear heels and put on some red lipstick and go and bat her eyelashes and stuff. The character is much smarter than that, and dealing with somebody, in the movie, that's also much smarter than that."
He says that, while seduction does play its part in the movie, it is really another element of the characters' jigsaw. "The seduction is much more complicated than I think one would normally think for a movie like this," he says. "A huge part of the movie is the idea of kind of figuring out what the target needs and wants. It's figuring out the puzzle of the person. And the target she spends half the movie going after is more sophisticated than someone that needs a little flirtation."
Jennifer Lawrence agrees that her character is more fascination than flirtation, and says that if the film succeeds, she'd be happy to return to the role for the near-ubiquitous sequel: "I find her fascinating – I've been frequently asked [following The Hunger Games], 'Would you ever do another franchise again?' I've always said to grow with a character over years is one of the most interesting things as an actor that you can do, and I don't feel like I'm done yet with Dominika. There's much more to explore. So, yes, I would love to play Dominika again."
Red Sparrow went into development shortly after the novel was published in 2013, a time of relative calm between global superpowers when the Cold War seemed like ancient history. Now, released in 2018, the movie has a sudden unexpected timeliness, with proxy wars raging between Russia and the US in the Middle East, Russian double agents being poisoned in the UK, and the looming shadow of alleged Russian US-election meddling and accusations of President Trump's collusion with Moscow.
Director Lawrence admits that he couldn’t help noticing that his movie became strangely prescient as the production process went on. “Topically and thematically the Cold War, when we started the project, was sort of irrelevant,” he says. “That wasn’t back in the news in the way that it is now. When we started working on the story, I fell in love with it because I fell in love with the story of the girl in the movie.”
The real-world news soon started strangely mirroring Lawrence’s movie, however, although the director says he doesn’t want to read too much into this latest case of life imitating art. “Oddly, in the process of developing the script and making the movie, that became a new big thing, especially with the election and the accusations about Trump and his connections to Russia,” Lawrence says.
“It sort of sparked up again. I would say there’s an added level of relevance, but it’s not a political film.”