SERENA. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, David Dencick, Christian McKay, Directed by Suzanne Bier. 109 minutes. Rated MA (Strong violence and sex scene)
On paper, this film has a lot going for it. It teams Oscar-winner, Jennifer Lawrence, for the third time with Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). Rhys Ifans is unrecognisable as the villain and there is an interesting supporting cast of British actors. And the director is the Oscar-winner, Susanne Bier. However, it seems that very few people are interested in the film or like it.
Actually, it is very much like one of those 1930s or 1940s melodramas, possibly with Barbara Stanwyck in the central role as Serena. This kind of film is out of fashion now, better appreciated on television, Turner Classic Movies and other similar channels.
Having said that, it is best to look at Serena for what it is rather than what audiences might want to be.
The film is very colourful, often beautiful, to look at, set in the forests and mountains of the Carolinas during the Depression. It recreates the mood of a logging town and its activities, hard work, sometimes hard lives, Bradley Cooper is George Pemberton, an enterprising man, who wants to exploit the forests – and we have several scenes of the chopping down of the trees, the logging, the rail carriages to carry the wood, and some accidents. George is a businessman who has dreams of owning property in Brazil and exploiting the forests there.
When he goes to the city and sees an elegant young woman doing dressage and sitting elegantly on her horse, he decides to, literally, pursue her and very soon they are married. This is Serena, played by Jennifer Lawrence in different mode from all her other films, not reminding us of Katniss Everdene in The Hunger Games films, nor the brassy wife in American Hustle. Serena has survived severe fires as a girl of 12, but has lost her family. When she arrives at the logging town, she instantly shows that she is a strong woman, a partner in the business with her husband, critical of the men getting snakebites and determining that they should buy an eagle who will swoop on the serpents. And she impresses the men by training the eagle herself.
There are some strange characters in the town, especially a former prisoner, Galloway, played by the unrecognisable Ifans, devoted to Pemberton, devoted to his Serena, especially when she tends him after a severe accident with an axe. There is also Pemberton’s partner and accountant, Buchanan (David Dencick) who is certainly attached to Pemberton, the screenplay raising questions about his sexual attitudes.
The screenplay of the film is topical when the townspeople, led by the sheriff (Toby Jones) discuss environmental issues – which don’t persuade Pemberton at all.
Serena seems unconcerned with the fact that her husband has sired a son with one of the local maids. But, when Serena rides a horse after helping Galloway with his wounds, this becomes more important because the melodrama starts with a miscarriage and a growing jealousy by Serena of the young mother.
And, melodrama it is, moving away from the dramatic history of the early part of the film, bringing up tensions between Serena and her husband, Serena using Galloway as an instrument of vengeance, and flights and murders.
Part of the melodrama is Buchanan and his envy of George Pemberton and the temptation to betray him. There are other members of the team who are suspicious of the bookkeeping and the entries and are willing to make deals with the authorities.
Throughout the film there has been a symbolic image, a panther wandering the mountains, mostly unseen, but deadly. George Pemberton and his friends are eager to hunt the panther, which, when the eventual confrontation takes place, we appreciate is an image of Serena herself.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 27th November 2014.