Red Sparrow | 2018
When her ballet career is brought to a premature end, young Russian dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is enlisted by her creepily manipulative uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), Deputy Director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, to train as a ‘sparrow’, an undercover state operative specializing in sexual seduction techniques.
Helsinki, the setting for much of Jason Matthews’s 2013 novel, is changed to increasingly film-friendly Budapest, Hungary, with many of the ‘Russian’ scenes being filmed in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.
For the opening scenes, though, it’s Budapest appearing as ‘Moscow’, with Dominika hurrying through Budapest’s Hősök tere (Heroes' Square) past the Műcsarnok Kunsthalle (Palace of Art) to what appears to be the 'Bolshoi Theatre' – though this was added digitally, masking what is really the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts).
The lavish auditorium, where a leap gone wrong sees Dominika suffer the fateful broken leg, is that of the Hungarian State Opera, Budapest, Andrássy útca 22, 1061. The 1,260-seat theatre is famous for its excellent acoustics and, even if you’re not attending a performance, there are regular guided tours of the building.
Needing to support her ailing mother, Dominika reluctantly accepts her uncle’s offer of assistance in return for undertaking a little job for the Russian intelligence agency. What could go wrong?
The ‘Russian’ HQ where Vanya reports to the top brass, General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and Colonel Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds) is the main branch of the magnificent Szabó Ervin Library, in the Wenckheim Palace, Budapest, Szabó Ervin tér 1, 1088. You can visit the library but it’s a bit of a maze to find these beautifully preserved old rooms.
And finally, Slovakia. The forbiddingly austere exterior of the Russian agency outside which Dominika meets with her Uncle Vanya is Dom odborov, the former House of Trade Unions, Istropolis, Trnavské mýto 1, 831 04 Bratislava, in Bratislava’s Nové Mesto (New Town). Now used as a congress and cultural centre, it currently houses Teatro Wüstenrot.
Her assignment seems simple enough. She’s to seduce wealthy and corrupt politician Ustinov in a luxury hotel and, while he’s distracted, quickly swap his mobile for another. In fact, the set-up becomes a hit and Ustinov is killed in front of her.
The ‘Hotel Andarja’ is the New York Palace Hotel, Budapest, Erzsébet körút 9, 1073, in the 7th district. It was built in 1894 as a local head office for the New York Life Insurance Company, nationalised during the communist era but, following the collapse of the USSR, renovated to become this extravagant hotel.
Extravagant? Well, take a look at the impossibly glamorous bar in which Dominika meets Ustinov, which is the hotel’s New York Café (who could have built a set like that?), though the hotel room itself is a set.
Now a witness to murder, the vulnerable Dominika has no choice but to be recruited, Nikita-style, into a government training scheme specializing in kompromat – seduction and sexual manipulation – under the stern eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling).
The exteriors for the training school, ‘State School Four’ were filmed at Festetics Palace in Dég, about 50 miles southwest of Budapest. Don’t confuse this with the other, more famous, Festetics Palace in Keszthely at the western tip of Lake Balaton.
This palace was built in 1815 for Antal Festetics, a wealthy (obviously) Hungarian nobleman, then used as a military facility during WWII before being taken over by the Soviets as a children’s home.
The castle and surrounding park are now open to visitors during summer months.
Most of the school’s interiors, though, were filmed at a rural cultural center adjacent to an abandoned factory in Dunaújváros, an industrial city on the River Danube, in Central Hungary about 40 miles south of Budapest. During the Communist era, it was common for a factory to have its own cultural center like this for the workers, which often housed a little theatre.
Against the better judgement of Matron, the single-minded Dominika graduates and is given her first proper mission by Vanya. The grandly old-fashioned restaurant in which her uncle briefs her was Book Café, Lotz Hall, Budapest, Andrássy útca 39, 1061.
Originally a 19th Century casino, in 1911 this superb Art Nouveau building was converted into the Paris Department Store, which managed to survive all the city’s changes until finally closing down in 2000. In 2009, it was reopened as the multi-story Alexandra Bookstore and the Lotz Hall (named for its elaborate frescoes by Hungarian painter Károly Lotz) on the Mezzanine level turned into the Book Café.
In 2017, the Bookstore itself, along with the café, closed too. The dining room was reopened again in 2019, now as Café Párisi.
Meanwhile, in the story’s other plot strand, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) botches a night-time assignation with a Russian mole known only by the code-name ‘Marble’ and is lucky to escape to the ‘US Embassy’.
This supposedly takes place in Moscow’s ‘Gorky Park’, but those Soviet-style bas-relief blocks are the 1958 Labor Movement Mausoleum, which you can find in Budapest’s vast Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest, Fiumei útca 16-18, 1086.
Opened in 1847, and last resting place of Hungary's great and good, Kerepesi is sometimes called the 'Père Lachaise of Budapest', and is also Europe’s biggest outdoor statue park. Part of 2008’s WWII drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was filmed at the cemetery.
The plot strands are drawn together as Dominika is instructed to entrap Nash and discover the true identity of ‘Marble’.
Bizarrely, after all those ‘Russian’ scenes filmed in Budapest, the first ‘Budapest’ scene is shot in Bratislava. The eyecatching ‘Russian agency HQ’ in ‘Hungary’ is the unmistakable inverted pyramid of the Slovak Radio Building, Mýtna 2826/1, 811 07 Bratislava.
Opened in 1983, 80 metres high and housing a 520-seat concert hall, the building has the distinction of appearing in the Daily Telegraph's list of the 30 ugliest buildings in the world. What do you think?
Dominika contrives a first meeting with Nash at his local regular swimming pool, which is the Komjadi Bela Sportuszoda (Bela Komjadi Stadium), Budapest, Árpád Fejedelem útja 8, 1023, a complex of five pools to the north of Budapest. They chat outside on the corner of Frankel Leó útca and Komjadi Bela útca.
The huge pool interior, though, is somewhere else entirely. It’s the Fabó Éva Swimming Pool, Építők útja 9, 2400 Dunaújváros, the town where ‘Sparrow School’ interiors were found.
Dominika contrives another meeting with Nash at an official gathering held in the ‘Roosevelt Conference Room’ of the ‘American Embassy’, with those striking stained glass windows.
They’re famous as Hungary’s largest stained-glass installations and they’re the major feature of the Theoretical Building of Semmelweis University, Budapest, Nagyvárad tér 4, 1089, which is claimed to be the tallest high rise in the country.
Nothing if not resourceful, Dominika goes on to use the skills she’s learned to get the better of the obnoxious Maxim. The striptease bar in which she meets and entraps him is the real HalloBár Budapest Striptease Bar, Budapest, Király utca 65, 1077. It’s pretty much an institution nowadays, having been here since the 1970s.
Dominika and Nash, both pretty savvy, make no attempt to disguise from each other the fact that they’re state agents. The trick is to figure out who is playing whom.
When they have a dinner date, Dominika chooses not to show up but to observe from a distance and follow Nash back to his apartment.
Dominika has her own – for the time being – impenetrable plans, which involve travelling mysteriously to Vienna, Austria, to open a bank account in ‘Bank Graf Vienna’ on Michaelerplatz, the small but grand circle in front of the famous Hofburg Palace.
This ‘bank’ is actually the old and currently vacant Café Griensteidl building at Michaelerplatz 2. Coincidentally, it’s just across Herrengasse from Raiffeisenlandesbank Niederösterreich-Wien AG Austria, a real bank seen in in Ron Howard’s 2013 Rush, with Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as feuding Formula One drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
When the Agency submits Dominika to a polygraph test and learn about compromised Chief of Staff Swan (Mary-Louise Parker) it’s in the luxurious surroundings of the Danubius Hotel Gellért, Budapest, Szent Gellért tér 2, 1114, an Art Nouveau hotel on the Danube. Dating from 1918, the venerable building suffered serious damage during WWII but has been lavishly restored to become a four-star hotel.
And when Swan is set up for an exchange of computer discs in London, Dominika is installed in nothing less than the five-star Corinthia Hotel, Whitehall Place, in the heart of Westminster SW1, where she meets Swan in the hotel’s Northall Bar.
Layers of deception subvert this apparently simple mission and Dominika finds herself ordered back home. In these security conscious times, there’s not a great deal of filming allowed at Heathrow Airport, but that’s the real thing as Nash follows Dominika to Terminal 2 (The Queen’s Terminal), but can get no further than the departure gate.