Film Review: Red Sparrow (15), 8/10
During a moving exchange in Francis Lawrence's white-knuckle espionage thriller, a sickly mother embraces her daughter, who has been conscripted into an elite Russian spy programme under the auspices of patriotism.
'Hold something back. Don't give them all of you. That's how you survive,' tearfully whispers the matriarch.
Jennifer Lawrence gives all of herself - physically and emotionally - to the demanding title role of this high-stakes game of post-Cold War cats and mice, torn from the pages of Jason Matthews's award-winning novel.
The Oscar winner exposes every inch of her body in scenes of masterful seduction and sickening subjugation, including multiple sexual assaults and stomach-churning bouts of torture.
It's certainly not a film for the squeamish - the camera lingers on the aftermath of snapped bones and one sadistic sequence involving a skin grafting device is the stuff of nightmares.
Lawrence weathers these bone-crunching blows, then shatters her character's soul to smithereens when she thinks no one is looking, in the service of a tightly woven narrative, threaded with betrayal and daring double-crosses.
Crucially, it's predominantly women who decide grim fates, employing guile and intelligence to outwit men in suits and military uniforms, who have grown fat and complacent on the illusion that they wield power.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre, who pirouettes to finance the medical care of her mother (Joely Richardson).
The dancer suffers a horrendous injury on stage and three months later, as she hobbles through recovery, Dominika receives an unwelcome visit from her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of the Russian Intelligence Service.
He press-gangs his niece into the top-secret Sparrow project, which moulds attractive recruits into weaponised assets to strike at the heart of Western governments. Before Dominika can complete her training, she is despatched to Budapest to dupe seasoned CIA operative Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), the only person who knows the identity of a mole codenamed Marble within the Kremlin.
Nash is wise to the Russian plan and believes he can turn Dominika against her motherland.
Red Sparrow is a muscular and engrossing thriller which revels in the tantalising disconnect between actions and words.
Plot mechanics are well-oiled thanks to Matthews's source material - the author was a clandestine operations officer for the CIA Consequently, screenwriter Justin Haythe concentrates on visualising mind games and daring power plays that leave us in the dark about characters' ulterior motives.
The film soars on the wings of Lawrence's fearless performance and the sterling support of Edgerton and Rampling, the latter irresistibly chilling as Matron of the Sparrow programme, who tutors charges in the art of sexual warfare.
'Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece and they will tell you anything,' she purrs.
Unravelling the mysteries of Francis Lawrence's puzzle picture is a nail-biting treat.