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Serena

D: Susanne Bier / 109m

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Toby Jones, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Ana Ularu, Sean Harris, Kim Bodnia

1929, North Carolina.  George Pemberton (Cooper) owns a timber company that is in need of further investment to stave off closure.  With the Depression having made his own outside investments worthless as collateral for a loan, George is left to find other means of securing his company’s future.  He has land in Brazil that he could sell but the land has been purchased with a view to being the apex of his timber empire; he needs his current operation in North Carolina to be successful in order for him to be able to make the land in Brazil an even bigger success.

While at a rare formal event with his sister, George spots a young woman (Lawrence) he’s immediately attracted to.  His sister informs him that the young woman’s name is Serena Shaw, but he should be careful about entering into a relationship with her.  Serena has a troubled history: her family perished in a fire that only she managed to escape from, and the experience has had a traumatic effect on her.  George ignores his sister’s warning, introduces himself to Serena, and they embark on a whirlwind romance that sees her become Mrs Pemberton.

They arrive at the small town of Waynesville, where George has his base of operations and he introduces Serena to some of his men, including his business partner Buchanan (Dencik), who takes an immediate dislike to her.  Serena takes an active role in the timber business and further alienates Buchanan while winning the respect of her husband’s workers, particularly Galloway (Ifans), who acts a a foreman when he’s not going on hunting trips with George.  Soon, Serena falls pregnant, but while the couple’s personal happiness increases every day, cracks begin to appear when Serena learns that George already has a child, the result of a brief affair with the daughter of one of his workers, Rachel (Ularu).  Against Serena’s wishes, George supports Rachel and his son, and gives her a job.

Meanwhile, Buchanan has gone behind George’s back and has been negotiating a sale of the business with rival interests that include the sheriff, McDowell (Jones).  George rejects their offer, and while he tries to keep the business afloat, his support for Rachel and his son leads Serena to make a terrible decision that will have far-reaching consequences for all of them.

Serena - scene

Filmed in 2012 with the Czech Republic standing in for North Carolina, Serena is (almost) the kind of romantic drama that Hollywood used to churn out by the dozen in the Thirties and Forties, where the determined but naïve young wife comes to live on her new husband’s plantation/ranch/estate, earns the respect of everyone around her, and then falls in love with another man just as she discovers her husband isn’t the man she thought he was.  Except here she doesn’t fall in love with another man, instead she develops homicidal tendencies toward his illegitimate son and the child’s mother.  It’s a twist on the standard plotting, to be sure, but in the hands of screenwriter Christopher Kyle and director Bier, Serena proves to be a bit of an endurance test, rather than an enjoyable throwback to old movie formulas.

Adapted from the novel by Ron Rash, Serena is a stilted exercise in period drama that never really gets off the ground, despite the pedigree of both its director and its cast, and some impressive location photography.  It’s a muddled movie that never feels like it’s being allowed to breathe properly, or fully explore the issues and motivations of its central characters.  George is meant to be a strong empire builder, the kind of land baron whose ruthlessness will win out against any challenge.  In reality, George is too soft; he doesn’t have the edge needed to fend off the likes of Sheriff McDowell, or manage his affairs – either personal or business – with the kind of remorseless determination you might expect.  In short, George is a straw man just waiting to be knocked down by one of his opponents.

This leaves Serena as the more dominant character, both in their relationship and in the movie as a whole.  Her troubled past gives rise to a need to assert herself, to be in control.  But when things begin to spiral out of her control, and she seeks to reassert that control, she quickly “loses it” completely, and with barely a backward acknowledgment of her previously normal behaviour.  We’re in Lady Macbeth territory here, and while Lawrence is a very talented actress, even she can’t pull off the major shift required in Serena’s “development” as a character.  In fact, the bloom is barely faded from her marriage to George before hints as to the eventual outcome of their union are signposted, and while these hints are to be expected, they’re often too clumsily inserted into the narrative to be entirely effective.

As a result, the third teaming of Cooper and Lawrence remains unconvincing, with their relationship only occasionally having any resonance, and the vagaries of their characters making their scenes together often feel disjointed and missing some unifying element – it’s as if they’re each reading from a different draft of the script.  As the movie descends into rampant melodrama – there’s a fire, a race against time, a character becomes a single-minded killer – Serena lets scenes go by without any consideration for how incongruous they are, or how lacking in real emotion.  Often, it’s like watching a rehearsal, where hitting the mark is more important than delivering a performance.  The rest of the cast perform adequately enough – Ifans, though, is miscast – but even they can’t salvage things.

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Bier has made some very good movies in the past – Love Is All You Need (2012), After the Wedding (2006) – but here she fumbles the material completely, and leaves the viewer adrift on a sea of tangled motivations, uninspiring developments, and tension-free dramatics.  The movie lacks a spark, something to make it more interesting and more urgent than it actually is, but instead it plods along and never grabs the viewer’s attention.  By the end, when the tragedy is complete, it’s not just the tragedy relating to the characters that’s arrived at, but the tragedy for the viewer who’s made it all the way through and received so little reward.

Rating: 4/10 – disappointing on so many levels, Serena is hampered by a lack of dramatic focus and a script that remains turgid throughout; when even actors of the calibre of Lawrence, Cooper and Jones can’t rescue things, then it’s time to up camp and move on.

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