Serena

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 27, 2015
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star in 'Serena'
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star in 'Serena'  (Source:2929 Productions)

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Serena, the title character of director Susanne Bier's new film. Bradley Cooper co-stars as Serena's husband, a logging magnate named George Pemberton.

Once George and Serena meet and marry, and he brings her back to North Carolina -- where his logging industry is threatened by government plans to turn a sizable chunk of the state's virgin forest lands into a national park -- Serena (herself from a logging family in Colorado) sets about acting like the business partner she sees herself being for George. This causes some resentment in the local community -- especially from George's right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), who is clearly gay and jealous. Another townsperson who has some cause for jealousy is Rachel (Ana Ularu), the single mother of George's son.

Others see Serena as a force of nature, or maybe something akin to dignity; young Vaughn (Sam Reid), who more or less acts as her valet, seems smitten with her, while the tough, taciturn Galloway (Rhys Ifans), a foreman on the logging crew, becomes convinced that her presence is the result of supernatural forces guiding both her life and his.

The film is, on the surface at least, a down-to-earth production about love, passion, ambition, and madness. Morten Søborg's cinematography and a haunting score by Johan Söderqvist go a long way toward keeping things grounded and on track. But as the film progresses, Serena's fears and rages start to devour both herself and George, and suck those around them into a lethal vortex of cooked books and crooked land deals. What starts out looking like an Americanized Lady MacBeth skates dangerously close to the excesses of cinema's most egregious wild women; there are no boiled bunnies here, but that's mostly due to the good taste and restraint of Bier, screenwriter Christopher Kyle, and Ron Rash, the novelist upon whose book this film is based.

Did I say restraint? Perhaps I ought to have said redirection. Serena's psychopathic magnetism results in a killing spree that triggers an action sequence that seems like it rappelled in from some other movie. Toby Jones, as the local sheriff, starts out a formidable presence but soon becomes nothing more than a shadow flitting around the edges, while Lawrence sets about proving that no community, whether in 1929 or now, is too remote to become Crazy Town if stirred and heated in just the right ways.

The film brushes lightly along ecological concerns, with proto-environmentalists engaging George in the boilerplate debate of harvesting natural resources in a sustainable fashion, or going all-out greedy and leaving nothing but a wasteland behind. This is less than a subplot; it's meant to illustrate something about George's own stripe of madness, a burning need to wrest wealth and control from the wilds of the untamed world. (Nature gets the last word, in a twist that's as contrived and ludicrous as much of the rest of the movie's final acts.)

Handsome to look at, but saddled with tonally inconsistent plot points and performances, "Serena" falls short, and falls flat.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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