Red Sparrow continues Jennifer Lawrence’s compelling struggle between her massive movie star persona and career as a serious actor.

It’s an understatement to say that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most famous actresses on the planet right now. Lawrence’s specific brand of fame exceeds simple household name recognition. She has achieved that very unique and unenviable status where she is not just known, but she is discussed; everyone has an opinion on her and, more likely than not, a strong one.

After Winter’s Bone earned Lawrence an Oscar nomination at just 20 years old, she transitioned from a relative unknown to Oscar darling almost overnight. In less than two years, she would appear in X-Men: First Class as Mystique and The Hunger Games as Katniss Everdeen. These choices, particularly the latter, catapulted Lawrence to international stardom. In that time, as a result of exhausting press tours, Lawrence built and gained a reputation, one to be loved by some and loathed by others.

In the same year that The Hunger Games was released, Lawrence also starred in David O’Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. The film would led Lawrence to win Best Actress at the Oscars, making her the second youngest woman to ever win the award.

In a way, 2012 encapsulated the paradox of Jennifer Lawrence’s fame and career. All at once she was the star of a hit franchise, not unlike Harry Potter and Twilight, while simultaneously found herself awarded by prestigious awards bodies for her work in the newest film from an esteemed Hollywood director. She defied definition and convention, she refused to remain inside the boxes people attempted to put her in.

Lawrence’s success in inhabiting these spaces – that of a movie star and serious actor – made the spotlight around her shine brighter, exposing her to greater risk and reward, stronger appreciation and harsher criticism.

Now eight years later, Lawrence has maintained a rare form of celebrity rarely seen in Hollywood today and it’s accompanied by its own unique paradoxes; to be known yet frustratingly unknowable, to be wanted yet subject to the pressures and expectations of millions.

When Lawrence received an Oscar nomination for Joy in 2016, there was a sense that Lawrence had reached a point of overexposure. The public reception of Joy was lukewarm at best and the role, that of Joy Mangano a self-made millionaire who invented the Miracle Mop, embodied some of the biggest complaints detractors had of Lawrence – primarily that she played roles for which she was too young.

In the last year, Lawrence entered what feels like a new phase in her career, one marked by a departure from what we thought we knew of her career. Her starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s controversial and ambitious film mother! marked a significant point of change for Lawrence. The movie star of audience friendly franchises like The Hunger Games and X-Men was now the lead in one of the year’s most polarizing and provocative movies.

Lawrence’s performance in the film worked directly against with the celebrity persona with which we’ve become so accustomed. The sort of charm and affability that Lawrence is known for was nowhere to be found. However, it would be disingenuous to call mother! some quasi-attempt at rebranding. Quite the opposite – Jennifer Lawrence’s public persona has remained just as playfully energetic and jovial as ever before. On the press tour, she shared anecdotes of her traumatic experiences during filming all with a wild grin on her face.

Mother! marked what appeared to be a test for how far Lawrence could push the limit of her star power. It’s easy and therefore tempting to quibble over box office performance as a measure of star power – but those days are long over, killed by the very studios that once relied on them. However, mother! proved that Lawrence still had our attention. Whether starring in massive franchise or an auteur-director horror flick, Lawrence remains a safe bet to make headlines.

It’s that star power, one that remains as omnipresent as ever, that makes Lawrence such a compelling celebrity and actress. It’s also what makes her choice to star in Red Sparrow another fascinating installment in her ongoing balancing act between being a movie star and an actor.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, who also helmed The Hunger Games, Red Sparrow follows a Russian ballerina forced to work for the Russian secret intelligence service after an injury ends her career. While the film is certainly not perfect, it’s a compelling spy story that weaves the personal and the political in a way that is fascinating to watch. The film avoids relying on action sequences, car chases, or even hand-to-hand combat to entertain. Instead, it reflects a more authentic reality of what it means to be a spy, especially the implications of how one’s body becomes property of the state.

Jennifer Lawrence shines in the film, delivering a performance steeped in a blend of cold restraint and inner chaos. Early in the film, as Dominika leaves to attend Sparrow school, Dominika’s mother warns her never to give herself fully to the cause and that is how she will survive. This ultimately functions as a thesis statement for both the character and the film as a whole. Lawrence plays the character with a razor sharp precision, giving away pieces of herself but never revealing herself entirely.

This characterization not only makes the film more captivating, but it mirrors the unknowability of Lawrence’s own celebrity. At a time when relatability is such a crucial component of so many celebrity auras, there is something tough to crack about Lawrence; she appears so fully open and comfortable oversharing about herself and her life, yet both Red Sparrow and mother! hit at something else, something more profound that Lawrence typically lets on. These choices have left audiences with a bit of a question mark hanging over their head.

There is also something very poignant about the similarities between Dominika in Red Sparrow and Lawrence’s own career and cycle of celebrity. Both women find themselves in the positions of great scrutiny, their survival dependent upon the success of their performance. Perhaps it’s hackneyed to conflate the two, but it’s by no means a stretch to see how both the character of Dominika and Lawrence are subjected to situations meant to take advantage of them.

In the film, Dominika is raped by a man early in the film after taking an assignment from her uncle, despite his assurances that he will protect her. The betrayal of her uncle and the violation she experiences colors much of her behavior for the rest of the film. In real life, Lawrence found herself the victim of hacked photo leak in 2014 that exposed nude photos of her to the entire world. While these two situations are much different, the feelings of exposure and violation run through both.
In a recent interview with 60 minutes, Lawrence spoke about agreeing to do nudity in Red Sparrow.

“I realized that there was a difference between consent and not, and I showed up for the first day and I did it and I felt empowered. I feel like something that was taken from me I got back and am using in my art.”

In Red Sparrow, Lawrence found the power to reclaim a piece of herself that was stolen. Coincidentally, this happens to be the very concept upon which Dominka’s story is told in Red Sparrow. It’s an engrossing story of unsettling, uncontrollable circumstances that push one woman to a place she never expected to go and how she fights to get back what she’s lost.

If nothing else, Red Sparrow marks another odd installment in Jennifer Lawrence’s career, one that refuses to be pinned down by an industry that is so accustomed to being in control. Ultimately, the tension between Lawrence’s reputation and the rather peculiar career choices are giving way to some truly impressive, though flawed movies. At only 27, Jennifer Lawrence is simply doing what feels right and there’s something admirable in that. One thing is for sure; no matter what she chooses next, I’ll be watching.

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