Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Susanne Bier
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris, David Dencik, Ana Ularu, Sam Reid.
This downbeat and nihilistic depression era drama is set in a logging camp in North Carolina during the height of the Depression. Despite the dangerous nature of the work there are lots of people looking for work. The camp belongs to George Pemberton (played by Bradley Cooper), who is keen to expand his timber empire and eventually hopes to open up a new logging company in Brazil. Pemberton’s logging business is under threat from locals who would prefer that the Smoky Mountains be turned into a national park.
After a whirlwind romance, Pemberton marries Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), who herself comes from a logging family, but she is deeply troubled and haunted by tragic events from her past. Their courtship passes quickly in a hastily assembled montage that suggests that some material has ended up on the cutting room floor.
However, Serena is no mere trophy wife, and is a tough uncompromising woman in a man’s world, and she becomes Pemberton’s equal in running their company. But her presence and influence inspires jealousy from Pemberton’s long time friend and foreman Buchanan (David Dencik, from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, etc). But George also feels guilt over his former relationship with Rachel (Romanian actress Ana Ularu, from tv series The Borgias, etc), and secretly gives her money to help raise her child. This causes some tension between Serena and Rachel, especially after Serena has a miscarriage and is unable to bear children.
Serena’s strong persona soon gives way to madness and as her mental state deteriorates she becomes more shrewish and she pushes those around her to desperate actions that have tragic consequences. Her actions also set the logging company on the path to destruction. And the local sheriff (Toby Jones), who leads the conservation movement, has set his sights on trying to bring down Pemberton and end his corrupt practices.
Serena is based on the 2008 novel written by Ron Rash, and the screenplay has been written by Christopher Kyle, whose previous scripts include K19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow and Alexander for director Oliver Stone. The film becomes a little too melodramatic towards the end. (Ironically, Cooper plays a character named Chris Kyle in his upcoming drama American Sniper, which has been directed by Clint Eastwood.)
Serena reunites Cooper and Lawrence, the stars of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but the chemistry between the pair here is not as palpable as it was under the direction of David O Russell. Serena was actually filmed a couple of years ago between those two acclaimed films, but it has sat on the shelf for a couple of years waiting for a distributor to figure out how to market the film.
Serena was a troubled production. It was originally intended for Darren Aronofsky, who went off to make Noah instead. The directorial chores were turned over to Oscar winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose films include the original Danish drama Brothers, which was remade starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. Her dramas often deal with people in conflict, and Serena explores familiar themes of jealousy, greed, power, love, guilt and power. Here she turns an outsider’s eye onto this bleak period of American history, and she doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the dangers of the logging business. There is one quite gruesome scene when a man has his hand half cut off by an axe. But ultimately this is a lesser effort in her fairly impressive canon of work.
Bier shot the film mainly in Czechoslovakia, and the countryside manages to beautifully evoke the forests of North Carolina. It has been beautifully shot by her regular cinematographer Morten Soborg, who gives the forest a foreboding and menacing feel. And the production design evocatively captures the era, with the costumes and trappings reeking of authenticity. Johan Soderqvist’s score perfectly complements the rich visuals.
Bier has assembled a solid cast to flesh out the characters. Cooper again demonstrates that he is capable of great range as an actor with a nuanced performance, and he plays Pemberton as a flawed man rather than the noble hero. Lawrence’s career has certainly taken off in the past five years since her breakthrough performance in the grim Winter’s Bone, and while she delivers another solid performance as the damaged but tough as nails Serena, she seems a bit too young to play the role, which was originally intended for Angelina Jolie. But with her platinum blonde hairstyle and cool style here she evokes the sultry screen sirens of yesteryear.
The cast also includes an almost unrecogniseable Rhys Ifans as the sinister former prisoner Galloway, who is willing to do Serena’s bidding, even if it includes murder. Jones is quite noble and strong as the local sheriff, who becomes the unlikely hero of the piece.