Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, based upon Jason Matthews’ novel, serves as a red herring for moviegoers who might initially mistake it for a simple erotic thriller or romantic crime drama. Opening with a shot of a Russian prima ballerina, Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence), meditating in her modest bedroom before a performance, the new spy thriller is quick to lull spectators into a false sense of trust.
Over the course of two and a half hours, Red Sparrow takes great pleasure in finding different, and sometimes grotesque, ways of shattering the illusion that Dominika, bashful and fair, can’t handle the sight of bone, blood, or—yes—flayed skin. On the contrary. When a danseur intentionally breaks Dominika’s leg during a performance, sending her into early retirement, she begins to perpetuate that injury: initially as revenge and eventually as a state-employed honeypot. Like all the best spies, she cares less about patriotic allegiance than she does personal loyalty (namely her own, to an ailing, cash-poor mother).
Despite Hollywood interesting history of actresses working as real-life moles—both Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker both spied for the United States during World War II—on film the female spy is generally relegated to a supporting character: a half-boiled erotic foil, or an easily-distinguished trope. The genre has glorified conventional gender roles to the point of exaggeration. As Rachel Weisz, Academy Award-winning actor and wife to Bond #9, recently observed in a recent interview with The Telegraph, the James Bond Film Series “devoted an awful lot of time to writing this particular character, who is particularly male and relates in a particular way to women [...] Women are really fascinating and interesting and should get their own stories.” Hey Hollywood, we have a pitch for a film for you: Betty Thorpe, the midcentury American spy who Time Magazine eulogized in 1963 as “using the boudoir as Ian Fleming’s hero uses a Beretta.”
Red Sparrow is an anything-but-gentle reminder that, when the espionage genre musters up the nerve to deploy an effeminate protagonist, the tale dramatically benefits from her assets—well-hidden physical strength, nurture, seductiveness, bloodlust, and subterfuge—at no disservice to plot or brawnier moviegoers; no high-octane flourishes or shaken martinis needed. However, the savage Russians and goofy Americans, so part and parcel of spy films, can stay.
Birds of a feather flock together. Here’s a look at a handful of female-fronted espionage films that predate Red Sparrow.
Spione (Spies) (dir. Fritz Lang, 1928)
Many early twentieth century spy narratives were inspired by the cacophony and anxiety of World War I. After the Central Powers’ defeat, the stories continued, Fritz Lang’s silent Spione (co-authored with his second wife Thea von Harbou) being one of them. While juggling missions that rely upon her feminine wiles, Russian spy Sonja Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus) finds herself falling for an agent that is tasked with taking down her boss. Initially viewed as a flop, Spione is now widely regarded as an early Bond prototype.
The Mysterious Lady (dir. Fred Nilbo, 1928)
Six months after Spione’s debut, The Mysterious Lady hit theaters. It’s pre-war Vienna and Greta Garbo is Tania Fedorova, another Russian honeypot who, unlike Sonja Baranikowa, typically manages to keep one step and heartbeat ahead of her target. But after swiping classified documents from Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) and seamlessly returning to Russia, Fedorova broods beside a bust of Caesar: will she be von Raden’s Brutus...or his Cleopatra?
Mata Hari (dir. Curtis Harrington, 1985)
A sex work allegory pervades femme fatale espionage, particularly when a mission’s success depends upon falling, convincingly, into bed with a relative stranger. This is a dynamic that Red Sparrow plays with to great success. However, no one has blurred this line between prostitution and spying quite like Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod—otherwise known as Mata Hari. A highly sought-after exotic dancer and courtesan struggling to find work during the Great War, she became a double agent who spied for both France and Germany. And at forty-one years of age, she was sent to the French firing squad for it.
While Sylvia Kristel makes for a more layered and convincing Mata Hari than Greta Garbo in George Fitzmaurice’s 1931 film, Joel Ziskin’s script doesn’t adequately support Kristel’s performance. Thrillers about the most infamous female spy, not unlike her conquests, seem to lose all coherency at the mere sight of her body.
La Femme Nikita (dir. Luke Besson, 1990)
Like Red Sparrow’s Dominika, Nikita (Anne Parillaud) boasts a leather jacket, a red hot temper, and a desperation that collectively make her an ideal candidate for spy recruitment. After shooting a cop during a pharmacy robbery, Nikita is given an ultimatum: serve the state or stay in the slammer. Feral by nature, Nikita chooses spy life, and the training has unexpected side effects: namely, a consistent routine grooms her into the woman she’d never learned to be prior to the robbery. For all its bloodshed, Nikita stays committed to one strange woman’s desire for freedom up until the last shot. In 1991, Parillaud took home the César Award for Best Actress for her simultaneously vulnerable and furious performance.
Salt (dir. Phillip Noyce, 2010)
Salt’s calling card is has always been its gender swap: the sleeper spy flick was originally written for a male lead, to be played by Tom Cruise. When casting fell through, the film was rewritten for Angelina Jolie, albeit slightly: black panties are implemented as a tactical device and a menstrual pad as a bandage for a bullet wound. But Salt still possesses the high-flying action sequences and all-American attitude we’ve come to associate with Cruise’s film choices. More interestingly, the movie knows its genre roots. “Mata Hari here’s got a big night tonight,” a CIA colleague cryptically observes moments before Evelyn Salt is falsely accused of being a Russian spy.
Atomic Blonde (dir. David Leitch, 2017)
M16 Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a tactically and intellectually gifted agent who may or may not have been playing on both sides of the Berlin Wall in the days leading up to its collapse, buying secrets from Russians and seducing them out of naive French agents. When a rogue British comrade dies, she’s sent into a make-or-break review with her higher-ups. What Atomic Blonde lacks in airtight story, it makes up for with countless Steadicam fight scenes, a perfect 1980s soundtrack, and a smugness that should be bottled and sold to female spies the world over.