In Depression-era America, privileged George Pemberton (Cooper) gambles everything to create a timber empire, finding his match in spirited heiress Serena (Lawrence). But obsessive love feeds ruthless ambition and greed, a grievous loss triggering a descent into madness.
If Susanne Bier’s film were subtitled and going the arthouse route, it would probably get acclaim for its feverish homage to vintage melodrama and flagrant borrowing from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But it’s in English, with A-listers Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper giving intense pizzazz to a remorseless if intriguing tale of passion, ambition, misery, murder and madness. Alas, it is the second time Oscar-winning Danish director Bier (In A Better World) has made an American movie —Things We Lost In The Fire was her previous effort — and been carried away with style. This is overwrought, unappealingly, almost comically, drenched with portentously scored and overplayed dread from the get-go while sense, context and taste waver.
Adapted from Ron Rash’s novel by Christopher Kyle, Serena re-teamed Lawrence and Cooper before Silver Linings Playbook even opened, two-and-a-half years ago. Since then it has been through at least three different edits on the search for distribution and it still has its problems, which is not to say that it is a mess. The glamorous stars are compelling and look dreamy in their period duds and out of them, in perhaps a few more sizzling sex scenes by firelight than are strictly necessary, and the landscapes are breathtaking.
We have great expectations of Lawrence and she does not disappoint, her Serena a fearless beauty in the Carole Lombard line who commands the respect of rough-hewn labourers in the logging camp, tames an eagle (literally and metaphorically) and is as irresistible as she is manipulative, cunning and dangerously jealous in her voracious love and desires. When she goes crazy you believe it. Cooper achieves the near-impossible, making an entitled, macho man — who intends to hunt down the last of the panthers in the Carolinas— a resilient, striving figure rather to be admired and a sympathetic, classically flawed, tragic hero type. But you cannot possibly root for anyone (unless it’s that elusive cougar). They have fibre but lack morals. Instead you watch an inexorable spiral of awfulness the same involuntarily fascinated way you might peek through your fingers at a crash.
Commercially it looks a disaster. Artistically, if very far from a triumph, its interesting, almost held together by its charismatic stars.