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SERENA – BFI London Film Festival 2014
October 22, 2014
Serena is a beautifully shot, artfully costumed and well acted romance which ultimately collapses under its own weight thanks primarily to confused pacing and a central relationship that’s so underdone it’s still cold inside.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ron Rash, Serena follows timber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) as he manages his slowly failing North Carolina business on the eve of the Great Depression. He meets the fiery Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), who returns to the camp as his wife.
From there, there’s jealousy, betrayal and manipulation that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever glanced at a copy of Macbeth, compounded by the presence in the camp of George’s ex-lover (Ana Ularu) and their child together. Toby Jones also pops up every now and then as the town’s sheriff, doing his best to frustrate the Pembertons’ corruption and turn the logging camp into a national park.
Screenwriter Christopher Kyle and director Susanne Bier both describe the film as a “dark love story,” and it’s clear that George and Serena’s relationship is meant to lie at the heart of the film. While the plot suggests the potential for a powerful tragic romance, the script and editing conspire against it.
The audience is told more than they are shown the Pembertons’ love, with early scenes more likely to be devoted to lust than anything romantic. Bier argues that theirs is a “physical love,” but the end result is that it doesn’t feel much like love at all. Their relationship is impossible to invest in because there’s nothing there below the surface-level suggestion that they should be together because they both love timber and having their own way.
The situation isn’t helped by pacing that suggests that after editing the first half of the film, Bier realised she still had most of the story left to tell and just decided to cram it all into the remaining hour. The film’s first half suffers from a too-slow, deliberate pace that bores more than it builds tension. As if Bier realised this too late, the second half hits the accelerator hard, at times feeling like little more than a cheap thriller using gore as a substitute for depth.
That isn’t to say that it’s all bad, however, and there are some aspects of the film that are impossible not to commend. The central performances from Cooper and Lawrence are as strong as you’d expect from the pair, who shot this film between their turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Cooper brings a convincing masculinity to George, preserving his sense of agency even as the script demands that he play a primarily reactive role as Serena becomes gradually more and more unhinged.
As for Lawrence, she reminds us why she has been so in demand over the two years since Serena was filmed. She’s immediately more than a match for the men of the logging camp, striking a balance between the matter-of-fact confidence needed to navigate the hyper-masculine logging camp and the femininity that remains at her core – her Serena is certainly no man in a dress.
It’s to Lawrence’s credit that she almost manages to make sense of Serena’s rapid descent into madness as the film nears its conclusion, and a film that gave her more time to explore the character’s progression would surely be worth watching.
The rest of the cast are a bit of a mixed bag. Toby Jones puts in a solid turn as the local sheriff, while Romanian actress Ana Ularu packs meaning into her character’s frequent mournful stares. Rhys Ifans is less successful as Galloway, a local hunter who becomes embroiled in the Pembertons’ problems after deciding that he owes his life to Serena.
Bier recounts that she cast Ifans because he “has a very gentle way of talking, that just makes him doubly scary when he plays the villain.” Unfortunately, what comes across is less gentle and understated and more gruff and over-practiced, with Galloway ultimately feeling more like a plot device and less like a character, appearing almost out of the blue to pledge his undying loyalty to Serena and become a useful proxy for her dirty work.
What the film may lack on the page, it does its best to make up for in visuals. Morten Søborg’s cinematography is routinely impressive, as he convincingly turns a Czech forest into the Smoky Mountains. His wide-angled shots bring in the expanse of the wilderness, dwarfing the characters with their surroundings, even when they’re inside their small log cabins. Søborg doesn’t deviate from this style often, but when he does – as for a lingering closeup on a sobbing Serena near the film’s midpoint – it’s to good effect.
Søborg’s work is backed up by Signe Sejlund’s costumes, which successfully evoke both period and character. Serena’s colourful attire, both practical and beautiful, immediately draws the viewer’s eye as she stands surrounded by beige-clad men. While they camouflage into the wilderness, she stands in challenge to it. Meanwhile the Pembertons’ right hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), impresses with a cravat collection to rival any other, neatly illustrating the contrast between his bureaucratic tendencies and George’s hands-on nature.
It would be a mistake to outright dismiss Serena, even if only for the visuals and the strong central performances. They can’t save the film from being a love story without much love, caught between its aspirations to be both an epic romance and a dark thriller. Bier worries that audiences might see Serena herself as nothing more than an “evil black widow” and be “repulsed” by her. Unfortunately, the more pressing concern is that you won’t care about her at all.
Serena is out in UK cinemas on October 24th