Red Sparrow (20th Century Fox, R)

R ed Sparrow, based on the Jason Matthews novel, follows successful Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), whose career and life fall to a tragic low when an injury ends her time as a dancer, leading her to be replaced by her resident company. This event could not come at a worse time, since she no longer has the financial resources to take care of her ill mother (Joely Richardson) or afford their apartment. But one day, Dominika’s uncle and Russian intelligence official Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a proposition: seduce a traitorous government official. When that assignment goes horribly wrong in a bloody way that Dominika witnesses, she is given one of two options: death or enroll in “Sparrow School,” where agents are trained to use their minds and bodies to seduce and gain intel on Western targets of interest. All of this is lead by the maniacal Matron (Charlotte Rampling). When Dominika excels, she is given the task of getting close to CIA officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who may have valuable intelligence on a Russian mole. But, her assignment becomes complicated when she finds herself falling in love with Nash. She is left with a dangerous choice: help the West or betray her country.

Red Sparrow is another mature transformation for star Jennifer Lawrence, following her fascinating turn in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!. Here, she reunites with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for a different kind of thriller that showcases both of them at their best. Relying less on set pieces than actual erotic intrigue, Francis Lawrence brings a lot of great visual style to the proceedings, capturing the cold feeling of a post-Soviet Russia. The despondent and plain look of the school is especially appealing, and is where cinematographer Jo Willems really shines. The score by James Newton Howard is also great, establishing the cold, unfeeling mood. The substance is provided through the twist and turns of Justin Haythe’s script, which explores the mental gymnastics of espionage while also commenting on the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Russia.  But, what is especially appealing is the humanity in both the writing and the acting.

At this point, there is nothing Jennifer Lawrence cannot do. Donning some extravagant costumes and a Russian accent, none of it distracts from the presence that she gives off. Her delivery is on point and the emotion she stirs up is complex and riveting. Equally as impressive is the quietly demented performance of Charlotte Rampling, who is delightfully uneasy as the head of the school. Matthias Schoenaerts is also a standout, shifting between two different personalities: caring and predatory.

However, while both are individually great, Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton do not have chemistry. That is the script’s biggest shortcoming, in that the love story is not properly developed. It feels too rushed, and there is not much to grasp on to. The film also has an off-balance relationship with the extreme violence and sex that is prevalent in its story. At times, it feels a bit too gratuitous. While there are scenes that are destined to make you squirm, they have a tendency to go on too long.

Red Sparrow has uneven pacing and can be tough to sit through sometimes, but it is a gripping tale of espionage nonetheless. Jennifer Lawrence pushes herself to places she has never been, and it is thrilling to watch. | Bill Loellke

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