Directed by Susanne Bier and starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in their third film collaboration together following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Serena sees J-Coop go further back in time to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in 1929.
Cooper plays George Pemberton a timber merchant who wants to keep making money despite the onset of the crippling Great Depression, whilst fighting the government for the timber land he owns that they want to save to construct a national park in the nearby region. Pemberton owns land also in Brazil, he wishes to sell the land to the government for $1million dollars and then retire to South America.
However, Pemberton is a lonely man. Lonely in the sense that he has no wife, although he does not mind making women in town pregnant and then forego child support nor any notion of responsibility. On a business trip to Boston and encountering his sister at an equestrian event he spies Serena (Lawrence) and in a kismet slow motion shot, Pemberton is smitten. Although he goes to quite some extremes to make his feelings known, his first words to her, 'I think we should be married'. Whilst Serena guffaws, we the audience do something else.
Serena returns to the timber yard with Pemberton and she knows a thing or to about timber having grown up in the business, she sets her stall out by wielding an axe in the field to demonstrate a notch for the workmen. However, all is not well with Pemberton's business partner Buchannen (David Dencik) who takes an instant dislike to Serena much in the same way any first mate on a ship would do when the Captain falls in love with a native.
Shady business dealings foreshadow one characters premature end, and the way that death is handled with such a cold hand and heartlessness means that this film will not end well for all involved. Illnesses, lies, betrayals are all visitors to this timber merchants where the fog descending from the hills have this ominous quality. Phallic imagery and symbolism abound throughout the film, the men controlling guns and knives are never far from the old shadow, you live by the sword you die by the sword.
Bier is a renowned filmmaker but like her contemporary Lasse Hallstrom comes from Scandanavia, where the sense of melodrama is never far from view. This is a problem for a film like Serena, it means well and with the sumptuous costume design and set production, the picture looks wonderful, it is such a shame that the film has muted ambition in terms of not telling us anything new of the era. The Depression was a terrible time, but why is there no message about the current economic climate perhaps or political allegory as say John Sayles did with Matewan during the 1980s amidst the Reagan administration.
It seems the ambition was restricted to the notion of dressing Ms. Lawrence to the nines in clothes of a wonderful bygone era, and yet it is not her fault that she is horribly miscast in the picture. Serena strikes me as someone who should have been closer to Pemberton's age and not the mere nymph she appears to be here, Lawrence unfortunately is still very young in her own right and has nowhere near the life experience required for a role such as this, full of complexity and turmoil. If he hope was to dress Lawrence up and make her appear to be Carole Lombard then they succeeded, they just should have attempted to get the ambiguity of Barbara Stanwyck.
However, J-Coop do make a good fist of it and with their obvious chemistry handling the Pemberton's a constant simmering of passion in an otherwise lukewarm situation. Featuring able support from Toby Jones as the town sheriff, Rhys Ifans almost unrecognisable as a hand on the mill and Sean Harris, all providing the essential need of gloom amidst the mist in North Carolina.
If you want to see better work from this director seek out In A Better World from Bier's native Denmark, a startling portrayal of troubled individuals set against the changing tide of political correctness.
Serena is out on DVD from Studiocanal on Monday 23rd February