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TELEVISION REVIEW

Disturbing 'Human Trafficking' captures brutality of sex slavery

Lifetime's ''Human Trafficking" can be extremely hard to watch. Mostly that's because it relentlessly depicts the brutal torture of young women who've been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. The two-parter, beginning tonight at 9, follows a handful of victims from different countries as they're ripped from their loved ones and treated like objects that, unlike drugs, can be sold again and again. The images are disturbing, and the filmmakers don't spare us scenes of these girls and women being humiliated, drugged, and raped.

Helena (Isabelle Blais) is a waitress in Prague with a 3-year-old daughter and a weary face. At the beginning of tonight's premiere, she falls for a romantic guy who invites her to Vienna. When she arrives, though, he coldly hands her over to human traffickers, who instantly strip her, rape her, and put her to work servicing johns in the United States. If she tries to escape, she's told, her daughter will be hurt -- and we're led to believe this is no empty threat. Nadia (Laurence Leboeuf), a 16-year-old from Kiev, winds up in the same brothel as Helena, after signing up for what she thought was a chance to model.

Thankfully, Helena, Nadia, and the other victims in ''Human Trafficking" aren't reduced to uplifting Lifetime lessons in overcoming adversity. The movie has enough respect for the pure evil of the crime to refrain from feel-good affectations. The abductees find psychological ways to weather their imprisonment and abuse, but they are clearly shattered spirits who've been driven beyond tears. Annie, a 12-year-old American picked off the streets of Manila while vacationing with her family, is the only character whose bravery may be overdone, as she selflessly tries to engender hope in the other girls.

Two of the movie's most grueling scenes have parents of the victims witnessing their child's abuse. Desperate to find his daughter, Nadia's father goes undercover into the sex trade, where he accidentally sees a video of his daughter being raped. And Annie gets hold of a cellphone and calls her mother, who then hears Annie getting raped. Obviously, these scenes are geared to stir even the most heartless of viewers, and they work. But they do indicate the movie's moments of manipulative excess, as it so desperately wants to politicize viewers against its subject. Know going into ''Human Trafficking" that it fully plans to make you writhe in disgust.

Unfortunately, ''Human Trafficking," which concludes tomorrow night at 9, is also hard to watch because of its half-baked cop-drama plot. All the individual stories of these international women are united by US efforts to capture a nefarious ringleader (played by Robert Carlyle, who played Adolf Hitler in a 2003 TV movie). Mira Sorvino plays Kate Morozov, a rookie agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement who is obsessed with cracking down on human trafficking. Oddly, she appears to be one of the only agents on the case, as the movie works to turn her into a one-woman force of justice. Yes, she even goes undercover. There's a hokey scene in which she confesses her personal connection to sexual exploitation, and her rapport with her boss, played with no layering by Donald Sutherland, is Mentor-Student 101. If she would only stop calling him ''Sir." . . . If he would only tell her to stop calling him ''Sir." . . .

Sorvino is as wooden as can be throughout. Perhaps she didn't connect with her poorly written role; perhaps she's just straining to understate. Either way, she fails to evoke a real character, and the movie loses its intensity each time it returns to her investigation. It tumbles down a few notches from horror-filled to horrible.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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