Red Sparrow ★★

That rare film whose second half is better than its first, probably in this case because the human angle and front-line mechanics of espionage tend to be more dramatically interesting than the demystifying backstory of how spies come to be. Still, even when it isn't going though the interminably humourless motions, this feels like the dress rehearsal for a much more emotionally involving film—one in which the human stakes of protecting and/or fishing out a mole, or defecting from or double-crossing one's own side, isn't merely a plot device. It's all too neat, somehow; for a film that posits that the cold war never ended, this one's moral compass appears all too stacked in favour of one side.

Francis Lawrence cut his teeth on The Hunger Games, a franchise designed for emotionally stunted twenty-somethings and their long-suffering partners. Whatever one makes of the script and dialogue (what must Charlotte Rampling have made of her lines?!), the director's approach here is depressingly soulless: for a film so evidently invested in ideas of physical trauma, the violence here, sexual and otherwise, feels bafflingly inconsequential. When a skin-graft torture sequence turns into a desperate knife fight late on, I could only imagine what someone like Cronenberg would have done with the same material.

Cronenberg could also, somehow, get away with having an actor like Viggo Mortensen deliver lines in what is meant to be a Russian accent without it all seeming too po-faced. (Honestly, it pains me to say it, but give me half a film in Russian with English subs, and the other in English. It's just too much an ask, in 2018, for me to watch Jennifer Lawrence struggle through this without so much as a wink or nod to how essentially trashy it is; are we to blame Spielberg, whose persistently earnest Bridge of Spies this begins to resemble in a very late sequence?)

You can't help but see through everyone's play-acting (none of it particularly playful), here. The film's themes—emotional authenticity, narrative plausibility, the elective suspension of disbelief, the structures and psychologies of trust—aren't embedded into the film's own aesthetic. It has that quiet air of desperation that films have whenever their makers think they're making art for adults, having forgotten (if they ever knew) how to do it.