Depression Looms in Dark 'Serena'

By Lodge, Guy | Variety, October 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Depression Looms in Dark 'Serena'


Lodge, Guy, Variety


Depression Looms in Dark 'Serena'

Serena

Director: Susanne Bier

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper

How do you solve a problem like "Serena?" That, at least, is the question industry watchers have been asking about Danish helmer Susanne Bier's mysteriously withheld American feature - which wrapped in 2012 with the enticing star duo of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper but has sat on the shelf ever since. With the film finally out in the open, the question is no easier to answer: An arrestingly nihilistic Depression-era melodrama, marked by courageous performances and exquisite production values, this story of a timber-industry power couple undone by financial and personal corruption nonetheless boasts neither a narrative impetus nor a perceptible objective. The result is both problematic and fascinating, an unsympathetic spiral of human tragedy that plays a little like a hand-medown folk ballad put on film. It's not hard to see why a U.S. distributor has been slow to step forward.

Magnolia Pictures, sister outfit of the pic's production company 2929, will ultimately release "Serena" Stateside in 2015, while Blighty auds will get to see it later this month, hot on the heels of its London festival premiere. (Despite that imminent date, the film was presented without opening or closing credits at the screening attended.) Marketing for the film is already positioning it as a throwback romance in the "Cold Mountain" vein, with understandably heavy emphasis on Lawrence and Cooper looking scrumptious in Signe Sejlund's impeccable period costumes, but it won't take long for word to spread that Bier's film is a far pricklier property than outward appearances might suggest.

Not that Bob Rash's acclaimed 2008 novel, rather liberally adapted by "Alexander" scribe Christopher Kyle, promised anything else. Though the film's silly, thriller-ized denouement lends events a cleaner sense of resolution than Rash's more opaque outcome, it remains a work of near-operatic pessimism, its consistent preoccupation with basest human behavior obscuring any rooting interest in the events onscreen. As a study in mutually destructive marital abrasion, "Serena" boasts no less bleak a worldview than David Fincher's "Gone Girl," with which it would unexpectedly form a canny double bill.

"Serena's" chilly, repeatedly self-severing storytelling is arguably more avant-garde than the plushly appointed star vehicle that surrounds it, though it's hard to gauge the film's own awareness of that disconnect. The first encounter between logging baron George Pemberton (Cooper) and Lawrence's feisty title character is a case in point: They meet on horseback, the wind caressing their respective tresses, and his opening line is "I think we should be married." It's either an instant of heightened romantic fantasy or a bitter parody of such a Hollywood-fostered ideal; Bier's typically measured, tasteful direction doesn't let on which.

Either way, it's just a couple of swift cuts before the two are indeed married, and George brings his not-quite-blushing Colorado bride to his muddy lumber empire in the North Carolina mountains. …

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