Not long after the heavy-handed ‘Atomic Blonde’ slipped Charlize Theron into the high heels, platinum wigs and dubious accent of a globetrotting spy, a stony-faced Jennifer Lawrence leads the way in the bleak, excessively long ‘Red Sparrow’, which sets off promisingly but tangles into a confusing clump. Lawrence plays disciplined Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova, whose career ends after a spine-chilling (yet attractively filmed) accident during a performance at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. To safeguard her frail mother and maintain their financial security, Dominika accepts the offer of her scheming uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) and enrolls at Sparrow School as a new intelligence recruit. There, she learns to master the arts of sexual and psychological manipulation through a humiliating training process, headed by a menacing Charlotte Rampling (who disappears from the film before we get nearly enough of her).
The set-up is not unlike ‘The Hunger Games’ (‘Red Sparrow’ director Francis Lawrence also worked on that saga, helming all but the first chapter), with Dominika’s body technically owned by a callous government. Paradoxically, ‘Red Sparrow’ itself puts its glum-looking star through a parade of indignities: The movie’s most shocking feature isn’t any of its twisty plot reveals – mainly involving Dominika getting romantically mixed up with a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton) – but the exploitative brutality it rains down on Lawrence. A smashed leg, physical torture and rape are just a few of the atrocities she endures. (Is it wrong to hope that Lawrence takes on something lighter next time, after ‘Mother!’ and now this?) With its highbrow ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’–like ambitions unrealized, ‘Red Sparrow’ ultimately plays a lot simpler than it initially suggests, even if a cathartic conclusion rewards the patience of those with tough constitutions.