'Serena': London Review

SERENA Still - H 2014
Courtesy of 2929 Productions

SERENA Still - H 2014

The lumber games

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper star in the long-delayed romantic melodrama from Danish Oscar-winner Susanne Bier

Screen queen Jennifer Lawrence made a surprise personal appearance at the world premier of Serena earlier today, imploring the London Film Festival audience to embrace the movie with a good heart. "And if you don't, just don't Tweet about it,"  grinned America's Sweetheart.

Lawrence's pointed quip was perhaps a sly acknowledgement that Serena has had a long and rocky journey from page to screen. Adapted from Ron Rash's shlocky 2008 bestseller, the project was initially earmarked as an Angelina Jolie vehicle directed by Darren Aronofksy. Then it passed to Danish director Susanne Bier, who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for In A Better World in 2010.

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Lawrence and her co-star Bradley Cooper wrapped the film two years ago, sandwiched between their acclaimed David O. Russell collaborations Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. While it sat in limbo awaiting a festival berth and a U.S. distributor, Bier shot another movie, A Second Chance, which also has its British premier at the LFF this week. Following its belated London debut, Serena opens across most of Europe later this month with Magnolia lining up an internet U.S. release in February.

Considering its troubled history, Serena is initially a pleasantly compelling if ploddingly old-fashioned romantic melodrama with overtones of Cold Mountain and There Will Be Blood. Cooper plays George Pemberton, a self-made timber baron intent on building an empire in the mist-cloaked woodlands of Depression-era Carolina, even if it means paying off politicians and keeping fraudulent accounts. But he meets his match in Serena Shaw, an ambitious young firecracker with an exquisitely crimped Jean Harlow-ish bob and some standard-issue Dark Secrets from her Mysterious Past. "We should be married," George boldly declares within moments of meeting her. And so they are.

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Newly married, Serena joins George in his muddy Carolina compound, quickly establishing herself as a strong woman in a man's world. But a tragic medical setback sends her into a mental tailspin, and her ambitions turn toxic, engineering the death of an obstructive business partner in a messy shotgun showdown. Later, aided by taciturn mountain man with clairvoyant powers (Rhys Ifans), an increasingly unhinged Serena sets about removing anyone who threatens her fragile happiness, including her husband's ex-lover and illegitimate love child. The body count rises.

Filmed in the picturesque forests of the Czech Republic, Serena is a handsomely mounted yarn with high production values. The lovely period costumes, muted autumnal colors and mostly hand-held camerawork by Morton Soborg are all pleasing touches. Likewise the starry cast, which includes Romanians, Czechs and well-known Brits like Toby Jones shamelessly hamming up their stagey Deep South accents.

Serena only has one key flaw: it is difficult to believe a single word of it, still less to care about these relentlessly selfish and short-sighted characters. The supposedly volcanic passion between Serena and George feels brittle and forced, despite the previous easy screen chemistry between Lawrence and Cooper. And there is a fatal lack of humor in the entire story, with the exception of Ifans, who plays his grunting troglodyte role with such exaggerated gruffness it ends up being unintentionally funny. Even after his hand is chopped off with an ax. Which is the best joke in the movie. In fairness, the only joke.

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It would be uncharitable to blame Lawrence and Cooper for this half-baked excursion into retro-noir romance, since both give performances with more depth and texture than these star-crossed lovers deserve. More blame lies with Christopher Kyle's script, a string of jarring cliches and clunky attempts at subtext, including a heavy-handed hunting metaphor that recurs with wearying regularity. Johan Soderqvist's cloying, imploring orchestral score is also at fault, constantly straining for an emotional grandeur that Bier's low-voltage melodrama simply does not earn on its own merits. More disappointment than disaster, Serena is nothing to Tweet home about.

Production companies: 2929 Productions
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Ron Rash
Producers: Nick Wechsler, Susanne Bier, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Ron Halpern, Ben Cosgrove
Cinematographer: Morton Soborg
Editors: Mat Newman, Pernille Bech Christensen
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Production designer: Richard Bridgland
Costume designer: Signe Sejlund
Casting: Jina Jay
Rating 15 (U.K.), 108 minutes