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.

“Hold something back. Don’t give them all of you. That’s how you survive,” she whispers.

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.

Crucially, it’s predominantly women who decide grim fates, employing guile and intelligence to outwit men 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 she 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). But Nash is wise to the 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 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. Unravelling the mysteries of Francis Lawrence’s puzzle picture is a nail-biting treat.

RATING: 8/10