DIR: Susanne Bier • WRI: Christopher Kyle • PRO: Ben Cosgrave, Mark Cuban, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Nick Wechsler • DOP: Morten Søborg • ED: Pernille Bech Christensen, Matthew Newman, Simon Webb • DES: Richard Bridgland • MUS: Johan Soderovist • CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Tobey Jones, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, Ana Ularu
Adapted from a 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Serena is essentially another rewrite of Macbeth, this time relocated to the harsh but picturesque Smokey Mountains of North Carolina in 1929. The story revolves around timber magnate George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and his formidable but unhinged wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). As Pemberton’s empire begins to unravel, Serena goads him into violent action, drawing the attention of the rumpled local sheriff (Toby Jones). Meanwhile, Serena allies herself with a sinister employee (Rhys Ifans) as her jealousy of her husband’s illegitimate child leads to further tragedy.
This brew is heated to nowhere near boiling point by the prolific Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (best known for the Oscar-winning In a Better World). Tellingly, despite Bier’s pedigree and the box-office appeal of her two leads, Serena has spent over two years in search of a distributor since shooting wrapped in 2012. This kind of long wait is often a sign that something’s amiss, and Serena bears tell-tale marks of a troubled production. No less than three editors are credited, and yet the pacing is still choppy. In the opening stages particularly, the film seems both rushed and repetitive, as George and Serena’s courtship is dispensed with in a montage that makes perplexingly disorganised use of fades to and from black. Several crucial players, including Ana Ularu, as the mother of George’s baby, languish on the edge of the action until they are pressed into service by the plot, while a key development involves the murder of a character so peripheral she never actually appears on screen. Rhys Ifans’ role as Serena’s henchman is particularly perplexing, especially when his apparently quasi-supernatural character is foregrounded towards the end.
Jut-jawed and cobalt-stared, Cooper never gets to grips with the inner weakness of his deeply unsympathetic character, and the narrative’s late attempt to give Pemberton the dimensions of a tragic hero – complete with a little half-baked animal symbolism – falls entirely flat. The eponymous Serena might have been a fine addition to a banner year for sympathetic villainesses – from Angelina Jolie in Maleficent to Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – but Jennifer Lawrence feels miscast, not least because she seems rather young for a part originally intended for Jolie. The strikingly naturalistic star of Winter’s Bone has never felt further away than she does here, as we’re treated to a succession of vampy poses and regal glares that might have picked up a cult following were the surroundings not so staid. Fans of Lawrence’s over-ripe turn in American Hustle (2013) will be pleased to know that she remains among contemporary cinema’s least subtle performers of drunkenness, even resorting to a comical hiccup this time out. More pressingly, neither she nor Cooper seems particularly at home in the period setting, and their wandering accents – like those of Jones and Ifans – do little to dispel the piecemeal feel of the enterprise.
Production designer Richard Bridgland and cinematographer Morten Søborg do sterling work, conjuring an authentic Smokey Mountains feel on sets and locations in Denmark and the Czech Republic. The landscape shots that bookend the film are particularly striking, evoking an elemental, folkloric quality that the rest of Serena gestures toward, but never effectively captures.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Serena is released 24th October 2014