Director: Susanne Bier Writer: Susanne Bier, Christopher Kyle
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu
109min Pyschological drama
After a long wait, Susanne Bier’s elegantly-crafted, depression-set retro noir makes for an enjoyable watch: there is sparkling chemistry from leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence who flesh out their roles with aplomb, yet feel way too starry for their characters; a glorious setting in the smoky mountains of North Carolina (actually, its the picturesque Czech Republic); darkly humorous turns from the Brits, Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones, hamming up their Southern drawls, and a thoughtful storyline that will appeal to art house audiences but has got caught up in Hollywood spin: as in A SECOND CHANCE Susanne Bier explores the corrosive force of childlessness on a power couple, but wraps it in a rather unconvincing storyline about bribery and corruption, penned by Christopher Kyle from the novel by Ron Rash.
This old-fashioned melodrama has the sinister vibes of Cold Mountain and even The Dark Valley. Bradley Cooper is screen dynamite as a debt-ridden timber pioneer, George Pemberton, who marries for money and falls in love. What he lacks in financial probity he makes up for in style and verve. Kitted out in his well-tailored hunting attire (designed by Signe Sejlund), he glows with vitality, bringing a suave masculine presence to the harsh mountainside community where everyone is down on their luck, until he fetches up with his stylish bride and heiress Serena (a luminous Jennifer Lawrence). Serena is not just a pretty face either: with her business acumen, gleaned from her father’s timber dynasty, she quickly gains respect amongst the locals and also has a winning way with birds; taming an eagle to control the snake population. But her glamour is too much for some: Pemberton’s partner Buchanan (David Dencik) feels threatened, for reasons other than business. Buchanan has a soft spot for George Pemberton, and it’s one that could go hard, given the chance. And a strange dark woman (Ana Ularu) with a baby, keep giving her menacing looks. Rhys Ivans (Galloway) is deliciously sinister as a wayfarer who comes to Serena’s aid when she saves his life in an accident, Toby Jones plays Toby Jones the Sheriff who has an implausible plan to turn the timber yard into a local amenity, but you keep wishing he’s just go away.
Ostensibly the Pemberton’s is a marriage made in heaven: until, that is, she tries her hand a child-bearing. Woody Allen was right when he said: “a relationship is like shark – if it doesn’t go forward, it dies”. And the Pemberton’s inability to create a family is ultimately their downfall. A power couple, figureheads of the community, their fragility and potent egos bound up in success and, in the Twenties, that still meant procreation. George Pemberton is similar to Andreas in A SECOND CHANCE (Bier’s film that releases here in January): they are both masculine men but there is also a vulnerability to them, and that vulnerability is their overriding need to be fathers: Their love for their offspring eclipses that of their wives. But due to his mysterious past, George Pemberton here holds the key to his wife’s undoing: and it’s alive and kicking in the same row of huts, right under their noses.
What fascinates Susanne Bier in this story; how a seemingly perfect love can not only be threatened but also de-stabilised when a woman feels let down by her biology and falls prey to mistrust and nagging self-doubt. And that is really what is crucial to understanding Serena, both the film and woman. The back-story concerning financial fraud is really just window-dressing. With Morten Soborg’s sumptuous camerawork and some great performances from the assembled cast, this is not a weak film but it is film that fails to concentrate and its crucial premise: that the pain and desperation of childlessness can cause mental instability. A that is the stuff of melodrama. MT
SERENA IS ON DVD FROM FRIDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2015