Updated: May 29, 2018
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2018; R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, profanity and some graphic nudity; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (HDX), YouTube
Best extra: Making-of featurettes
HOPE soared for “Red Sparrow,” a tale of the new Cold War between the United States and Russia.
Based on the book by Jason Matthews, a retired officer of the CIA, it re-teamed director Francis Lawrence and Oscar-winning actor, Jennifer Lawrence (unrelated). Together, they worked on the final three “Hunger Games’” films. In the commentary and making-of featurettes, the director says he received Matthews’ book from 20th Century Fox and presented it to Ms. Lawrence as a future project.
Unfortunately, the violent story of a Bolshoi ballet star who becomes a spy for Mother Russia never completely takes off, despite a good turn at the end. In an effort to strip sentimentality from Ms. Lawrence’s character, they remove her humanity. Dominika Egorova is more a psychopath, meting bloody justice to those who have wronged her. Moments that would have made the character more accessible are found throughout the deleted scenes.
When Dominika loses her position as a prima ballerina after an onstage accident, she also loses her livelihood and aid for her mother (Joely Richardson), who suffers from M.S. Dominika turns to her suave Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works with Russian intelligence, for help, and is ordered to seduce a powerful gangster, who is assassinated while raping her. Afterward, Vanya gives Dominika a choice: be tried and executed for the gangster’s death or become a Sparrow, an intelligence operative trained to seduce and exploit others for the government.
Running parallel to Dominika’s story is American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has blown his cover trying to protect a Russian asset codenamed Marble. Reassigned to the U.S., Nash insists Marble will only work with him. He brings the most humanity to the film.
Throughout the bonus features, Director Lawrence references the deliberate violence, gore, rape and torture that give “Red Sparrow” its “Hard R” rating as if it’s a good thing, allowing his star to stretch her acting abilities. Except we all knew they were terrific to begin with. There is a good story here; Matthews’ book is the first of a bestselling trilogy. It simply doesn’t pay off in the film.
Where “Red Sparrow” excels is in its picture (2.40:1 ratio) sourced from the 4K master via Panavision 35mm film stock and digital cameras (2.8K & 3.4K). It looks amazing thanks mostly to Production Designer Maria Djurkovic, who also worked on espionage thrillers “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and “The Imitation Game” (2014). She is unafraid of using bold, warm palettes in films normally drenched in cool blues and grays.
“Both for Francis and myself, it was very important to have a visual consistency throughout the whole thing. We’re shooting in Moscow and Budapest, and then we ended up also shooting in Slovakia and Vienna and now here we are in London,” she says in “Heart of the Tempest: On Location,” one of six mini-features in the making-of.
“[We needed] visual consistency and for us that was a very graphic, bold use of color,” she says. “And I had a really fantastic time because Francis really let me go for it in quite an uninhibited way.”
Lawrence and Djurkovic had never met before “Red Sparrow.” “What we ended up with was quite a colorful palette, actually, for what people would normally think would be quite a gray, bleak world,” the director says.
Amazing reds, greens, gold, and blues saturate visuals throughout modern-day and historic locations; light sparkles and glows in exterior and interior settings.
“We didn’t shoot anything on a soundstage in our film. We shot all in real locations, sometimes augmenting them with little, sort of mini-builds within locations,” Lawrence says.
“The whole look is … really interesting,” says Charlotte Rampling, who plays the Matron of the Sparrow School, a contemporary Rosa Klebb from James Bond’s “From Russia with Love.” “It gives that East European, slightly rundown, slightly decaying, the grandeur that was in those sorts of places. Then we go into these houses that are all crumbling, but not quite ... a sort of post-gracious living.”
Detail, in costumes, sets and locations, such as the Opera House in Budapest, which doubles for the interior of the Bolshoi, are exquisite. Meanwhile, complexions look natural from Ms. Lawrence’s glowing beauty to Schoenaerts’ handsome GQ features and the aged visage of Jeremy Irons’ Russian General Korchnoi. Black levels are authentically deep and consistent.
Sound in the Dolby TrueHD eight-channel track is also stunning with its blend of dialogue, effects and score composed by James Newton Howard (“Batman Begins,” “Signs”). The Atmos track provides a shade more height delivery for effects and music. Both rely on subtle delivery; be prepared to increase volume.
“This is my sixth movie with [Jeremy Peirson, Sound Designer/Supervising Sound Editor],” says Film Editor Alan Edward Bell in “A Puzzle of Need: Post Production.” “The thing that’s great about what [he] does is that he creates these aural landscapes that really make you feel like you’re in the environment, and he distinguishes each environment from all the others.”
“The key to the whole musical idea in this movie is the ballet,” Howard says of his score. “Before we started working on it … I had imagined what the movie was going to be like. And then, when Francis talked to me about the ballet, it completely changed.”
The composer “threw all [his] ideas out the window” to start again from scratch. “The first piece of music is 10 minutes long … and had to go back and forth between some action, multiple storylines, and an actual ballet. It set the stage musically for a classic, orchestral-sounding film score, rooted in orchestral writing, although there is a fair amount of electronics inevitably because there are some very strong and potentially upsetting moments, and I think that sometimes the electronics were able to describe those and underscore the heightened feelings better than just about anything else.”
They’re another gift in the 20th Century Fox presentation beginning with a detailed commentary from Francis Lawrence. The multi-part making of covers a variety of production details with interviews from the director, his co-creators and actors, while deleted scenes – with or without commentary – show what could have been.
As an espionage thriller “Red Sparrow” tries to deliver a John le Carré experience, but doesn’t quite make it. Meanwhile, the picture, sound and acting provide an evening of entertainment. The finale promises more, and we’d like to see what happens next. Or a re-edit.
- Kay Reynolds