Good Lord! How much sex and violence is acceptable for a UK-15 film?
I recognise that it’s a “thing” that I get into periodic ‘ruts’ of ranting about particular aspects of cinema. But it’s not spoilers in trailers this time! No, the most recent rut I’ve been in is concerned with the correctness or otherwise of the BBFC’s rating of UK 15-certificate films, which seems to have been the rating of every cinema film I’ve seen recently! In my view both “Phantom Thread” and “Lady Bird” should both have firmly been 12A’s to attract a broader teenage audience. But here’s a case on the other side of the balance.
“Red Sparrow”, the latest film from “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence, has Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy“, “mother!“) as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina, who after a horrific accident (cringe) is forced to serve the State in order to keep her mother (Joely Richardson, “101 Dalmations”) in their Bolshoi-funded apartment and with the necessary medical treatment. She is sent to a spy “whore school”, ruled over by “matron” (Charlotte Rampling), to learn how to use sexual and psychological means to ‘get in the pants’ (and therefore the minds) of foreign targets.
And she turns out to be very good and – without nepotism of course, given that her creepy uncle Egorov ( Matthias Schoenaerts, “Far From The Madding Crowd“) is high up in the special services – she is sent on a mission to Budapest to try to uncover a high profile mole, who’s CIA handler is Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, “The Great Gatsby“, “Black Mass“). Supervising Egorov’s operation are his two line managers General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice“) and Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds, “Harry Potter”). Sucked into a web of intrigue, Dominika needs to use all her skills and charms to complete her mission… which equates to keeping herself and her mother alive.
This is an extremely uneven film. In places it is quite brilliant, particularly the twist in the ending which leaves you thinking (like “Life“) that the film is actually better than it was. In fact – subject to a couple of severe reservations discussed below – the script by Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness“) and based on a book by Jason Matthews, is quite sharp. But – man – in its direction the film seriously takes its time. In my book, a film needs to have a pretty good reason to extend its stay past 2 hours, and this outstays its welcome by an extra 20 minutes. Many of the scenes are protracted – leisurely walks across streets etc. – for no particularly good reason.
And so to those major reservations: the sex and the violence.
I’m no prude when it comes to sex, but some of the scenes in the ‘whore school’ left me feeling like this was less about a “Times Up” initiative of empowering women and more about providing an array of sordid titillation on the screen that just help entrench mysoginistic views about women. (Did anyone else hear Kenneth Williams saying “Oooooh, matron” to Charlotte Rampling’s character?) There were men and women attending this training camp, but did we see – later in the film – any of the men subjecting themselves to sexual humiliation or subjugation in the field: no, we did not. I love a really good erotic film… but this just left me feeling dirty and used.
And then there’s the violence. I’m definitely not a fan of the sort of violent-porn of the “Saw” type of films, but heavens – if there was a reason to make this an 18 certificate it was the violence involved. Violent rape, a vicious revenge attack, extreme torture, skinning alive: was there nothing in here that the censors thought, “hang on a minute, perhaps I don’t want a 15 year old seeing this”. I have seldom seen and heard more flinching and whimpering from women in a cinema audience than during this film. If you are adversely affected by screen violence, this is really one best to avoid.
“The Cold War hasn’t ended – it has splintered into thousands of dangerous pieces” intones the matron. Similarly, this film has potential but splinters into many pieces, some good but far more sharp and dangerous. With similarities in tone and content to “Atomic Blonde“, there’s a good ‘post cold war’ spy film in here trying to get out. Unfortunately, it never quite gets both legs over the wall.
Fad Rating: FFF.