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Movie review: 'Red Sparrow' seems almost too restrained

Red Sparrow; 2hrs 20min; Rated R

“Red Sparrow” is adapted from the 2013, Edgar winning novel by Jason Matthews, former C.I.A. agent. The story focuses on a young woman, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi. Her life is devoted to dancing and taking care of her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson) in an apartment supplied by the state. All is well until abruptly it isn’t when she has a grim accident during a performance. Her leg is broken; her career is over, and she realizes that the apartment and her salary are now in jeopardy. She sees no solution.

But then her uncle, Ivan Egorvov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking deputy director in Russian intelligence visits Dominika and points out that her options are limited unless she follows his suggestion. Clearly incestuously attracted to her, he pulls her into his world of espionage and arranges for her to attend an academy for young spies who are schooled in the arts of psychological manipulation and irresistible seduction. Their purpose will be to extract information from vulnerable westerners. The graduates are referred to as “sparrows.”

From the outset, when Dominika finally agrees to do as he asks, the film takes on a hard edge. The school is a cold, impersonal place headed up by a ruthless woman known only as the “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling). Dominika is soon given her first assignment. The location is Budapest; her target an American agent named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who has been tracked by the Kremlin; they are certain he is working with a Russian mole.

Dominika, now a trained honey pot, is told to get close to Nash and get the name of the embedded traitor. The stakes are high and her assignment is literally do or die.

However, she has a plan of her own, one that will involve a double-cross, or is it a triple-cross (be prepared for the plot to begin to seem almost purposefully convoluted).

She and Nash do spend time together and though the intention of the plot is that they are attracted to one another the chemistry between them seems at best transactional and flat. Which is surprising. But then most of the interactions, with whomever, have a transactional quality and at no time does it seem that Dominika is in serious jeopardy (perhaps with the exception of a scene in act one where she is about to be raped).

“Red Sparrow” almost seems too restrained. As if the writers and the director, Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer although he directed some installments of “The Hunger Games”), were reluctant to acknowledge that the script is a trashy spy thriller and that they should simply have pulled out all the stops.

A recent 2016 film “Atomic Blonde,” starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent, and adapted from a graphic novel, was over the top. Theron’s character was schooled in way more than seduction. She was a blunt object in a business where that seems to work better than dialogue.

Lawrence’s character was placed by comparison, in a plot that called for anything but placidity. There are scenes that are a swirl of violent encounters, but the characters never seem to fully engage. I mean, this is pulp cinema, right?

What is, however, similar is that both Lawrence and Theron are superb actors (one of Lawence’s best is “Winter’s Bone,” often thought of as her breakout movie), both gorgeous to look at, and each can embrace a rogue character.

Keeping “Red Sparrow” afloat is that it is replete with a solid cast, to include Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds. Above all, Lawrence is one of the best actors working today (as is Theron), gifted in so many ways, as she demonstrates in this film even when the script is not as strong as it should be.

Final comment: if you are a fan of the spy thriller in all its incarnations, you will not be disappointed as you try to unravel what is a tightly raveled plot.