What is the point of sex? I think it's a question on which Christians should have a standpoint – hopefully one which goes a bit further than the old puritanical procreation argument. In a culture badly wounded by the influence of freely-accessible pornography, and with popular ideas of sexual morality becoming ever more fluid, I would hope that we'd be the people who stand up and defend sex as a wonderful gift from God, designed to bring intimacy between two people exclusively in love with each other. Because if we're not shouting that message loudly in our culture, I'm not sure who else will be.
Red Sparrow, the new Jennifer Lawrence spy drama, is the latest cultural voice to proclaim an alternative view. Forget Fifty Shades Freed (delightfully, it seems that everybody else did), this has an incredibly low view of sex, seeing it either as a weapon or a tool for manipulation. There's a strong argument that sex has gone from being sacred to disposable: in this story it's about as memorable and valuable as a budget Ikea table.
Lawrence plays Dominika, a famous Russian ballerina whose life is shattered when an on-stage accident ends her career. In desperation she turns to her uncle Ivan (a truly horrible Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in the shadowy world of Russian Secret Intelligence, and is soon put on to the 'Sparrow' programme. At a sterile old house in the countryside, she's trained by Charlotte Rampling's emotionless Matron to become an expert in seduction and manipulation. As part of it she's repeatedly humiliated, and trained to let go of her apparently outdated morality around sex, which is to be the chief weapon in her armoury as a spy.
She's sent off on a mission to meet and seduce Joel Edgerton's CIA operative Nate Nash (a name straight out of 1980s blockbuster), but because he's American he's obviously a much nicer sort of secret agent, and things get emotionally complicated. From there on it's a typical post-cold war whose-side-is-she-on thriller, admittedly with a nicely-hidden twist at the end. It's hard to follow and understand some of the choices which Lawrence's rather one-dimensional character makes, but some of them are necessitated by that trick ending.
Yet beyond that, the trouble with Dominika is that she's largely a reactive protagonist, not so much advancing the story as having it thrust upon her. It's not hugely believable, even if Dominika does have a sick mother (Joely Richardson) who she's trying to protect.
The film is a fairly well-made version of a familiar story, with the traditional fight academy being replaced with Rampling's school for moral reprogramming. But it's not just the ethics of the characters that are troubling, it's also the way that the story is told. Lawrence is raped twice, and doesn't really seem to find the experience all that troubling. She's sexually humiliated by Rampling several times, and her one act of defiance to that is to strip naked and offer herself, in front of a watching class, to a man who tried to rape her. After 'graduating' from the school, she begins to use sex as a tool for advancing her mission. And beyond all the sex, she's also brutally beaten in a truly unrelenting scene of male-on-female violence, and sliced to within an inch of her life by a knife-wielding maniac. It's hard to imagine room much of this being dreamed up by a female writer.
The question, and one you're presumably asking yourself at this moment, is why anyone would want to watch all this. Why is putting a beautiful actress on screen and subjecting her to all this horror classified as entertainment?
I fear the real answer to this is quite dark. In the film, Lawrence's character is told that even as a ballerina, she was only really dancing for powerful men with unpleasant appetites. Despite the movie industry's liberal leanings, is her role in Red Sparrow really any different?
I'm not quite sure why Lawrence chooses some of her parts. She's a brilliant actress – as demonstrated in movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Joy – but after the male abduction fantasy of Passengers, she now finds herself in almost every shot of a film with a low view of sex and, even if she is allowed a kind of victory at the end, a low view of women. Although perhaps the even more pertinent question is this: why does Hollywood keep wanting to put Lawrence in movies in which she's so constantly abused?
I don't recommend Red Sparrow; it's an ugly film with a pornographic sensibility, but it's also not very good. We do need to be aware of it though, and of all the poison that it contains. Sex is much more than this, and so is good storytelling. Jennifer Lawrence, and Hollywood, can and must do so much better.