One day Jennifer Lawrence will rule the world. Judging by her daring performance in this grim and murky Russian spy thriller, that day may be soon. Meanwhile (hey, give her time, she’s only 27!) we can watch her plans evolve in Francis Lawrence’s (no relation) Red Sparrow. In it she plays Dominika Egorova – a former Bolshoi ballerina coerced into a spy-training program at the ominous sounding State School 4. She more accurately calls it “whore school”. She graduates (of course she does), and then goes on to be confident, powerful and stunningly convincing as an agent trained to use her sexuality against “the enemy.” That’s us feeble Westerners, in case you haven’t guessed, made weak by our “obsession with social media and shopping”. You’d be right to see a parable in that, and lo and behold – look where she ends up!
That line, spoken by the icy principal of the school (Charlotte Rambling) is one of the truest and easiest to fathom in the enigmatic script that attempts (and almost succeeds) John Le Carre style greatness. Red Sparrow is dour, brutal, unforgiving and thought-provoking – disturbingly so. As well it’s a genuinely thrilling piece of espionage escapism about as far removed from Bond’s fast cars or Atomic Blonde’s girlie kick-ass BS as its possible to get. Throughout it’s twist and turns, bluffs and double-bluffs – you’ll never know what Agent Dominika is thinking or which way she will turn. Except that she knows her body’s power and is a strong-willed mistress of her own destiny, with plans of her own for the brutal Weinsteins of her world who sent her to whore school.
That she does so in a non #MeToo-approved manner seems to have incensed some PC gender warriors on the left, and you will read some very bad reviews of this. (“Putrid” spat Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster, “just awful,” spluttered a clearly horrified Jason di Rosso on ABC’s RN). I guess they thought she should’ve filed a complaint of sexual harassment and then feebly asked to stay anonymous – the way we do it here in Sydney. Or write a weepy online piece about those nasty Russian brutes not reading her “non verbal signs”. Well yes, that does work – in some parts of the world…
Also starring Matthias Schoenaerts standing in for Putin’s Russia, and Joel Edgerton representing decent liberal Western values. Appropriately Joel constantly looks like he’s about to cry. MA15+ on now at Palace Norton St, Palace Central, Dendy Newtown, Broadway, Burwood, Rhodes and George St. ★★★★
The trailer for The Mercy, which tells the tale of Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated entry in the first single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world yacht race in 1968, gives little away. Something was clearly amiss with his journey, you could tell that by the depth of Colin Firth’s furrowed brow and because his stiff British upper lip was quivering a lot while he gazed out at the ocean’s endless horizons. And I remember thinking “I wonder if he made it?” Apparently this tragic story of pluck, deception, financial desperation and blind stupidity is well-known. In fact it’s already inspired several screen treatments, stage plays, novels, poems docos and even an opera – and I’ve missed them all! There’s also another movie about to be released too (in the UK, but maybe not here).
Its easy to see why the story appeals – this is an intriguing and if not totally bizarre mystery– about how a fundamentally decent man who sets out with the best of intentions, slowly turns into a fraudster. In director James Marsh’s (The Theory of Everything) version, the blame for that can’t possibly be Crowhurst’s – otherwise he wouldn’t have cast King George VI, surely… Instead the finger is pointed at a sponsor with a claim on his house and a ruthless press agent (David Thewlis) rather too keen on bending the truth. Later his wife (Rachel Weisz) in one of the film’s most emotional (and unlikely) scenes accuses the “grubby press”, and extends responsibility to its readers (and presumably us, the viewers).
Meanwhile Firth gets his meatiest role for decades, alone at sea and battling misfortune and his own demons. In the face of certain financial ruin, he yields to the temptation first of just cheating “just a little” about his real location, then stuck in a mess entirely of his own making, finally into some sort of complete moral and mental breakdown. In the hands of this seasoned actor, it’s a convincing and agonising descent. As to whether he did make it and what happened afterwards, well, you’ve got Google too. M at Palace Norton St Palace Central and Dendy Newtown from Mar 8. ★★★1/2
As with all movies about men going off to war, this one starts with the family farewells. We know at least one of the soldiers we’re given brief back-stories to won’t come back. Maybe the likable dude played by Michael Peña whose wife refuses him any good-bye nookie so that he’ll “have something to look forward to.” Or the craggily serious one (Michael Shannon) well, he looks like he’s already seen enough suffering. But it certainly won’t be Mitch Nelson, his daughter is just too adorably blonde and cute and he speaks with a low, manly growl. And – he’s Chris Hemsworth! (otherwise known as Thor).
Here he leads a bunch of scruffy muscle-bound bunch of patriots off to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 – they’re a special ops unit who are dropped behind the lines to liaise with the friendly (or is he?) Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and guide the targeted airstrikes to retake the strategic northern Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, all in an impossibly short 21 days before winter snows close the passes. The action is fine, but apart from the novelty of using horses, their’s the sort of hard slog we’ve seen before. Badass men with machine guns blazing yell “sonofabitch!” and “cover me!” while bullets whistle past and a succession of bodies and villages explode into flame and dust. Occasionally we stop for moments of pathos. And to introduce to the enemy, a swarthy scraggily bearded demon who shoots a woman in the head in front of her family because her girls know how to do their times tables.
Actually, the Taliban did do that, and much worse, but as staged in this extended Jerry Bruckheimer-produced military recruitment video, the scene also seems just a bit redundant. The same could be said for the rest of the movie, which in terms of its geo-politics, remains disturbingly superficial. Too late in the piece General Dostum tells Mitch all we need to know about this conflict: “You Americans…. If you go, you’re cowards. If you stay, you’re our enemy.” That was sixteen years ago. MA15+ at Palace Central and on wide release from Mar 8. ★★
In The Fade (exclusive to Dendy Newtown).
Reviews – Russell Edwards