Caught between whip-cracking lioness and jealous femme fatale, Susanne Bier’s Serena offers a muddled portrait of the fairer sex.
Night Of The Hunter by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Returning to Hollywoodland after the critical panning of Things We Lost In The Fire and her part-Danish, part-Hollywood (it’s Pierce Brosnan!) cancer rom-com Love Is All You Need, Susanne Bier takes an unusual plunge into period drama, as she tackles the story of a cocky industrialist and his emotionally bruised new wife Serena. It’s fair to say that neither the Roaring Thirties nor the Great Smoky Mountains are Susanne Bier’s home turf, but still she creates, in collaboration with cinematographer Morten Søborg, an atmospheric depiction of a lawless backwater on the verge of modern thinking and land preservation rights. A couple out of time and nostalgic for a final frontier, it’s a way of life on the brink of extinction – lost somewhere in those North Carolinan mists.
George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a small-town merchant who makes his living cutting down trees to bring a railway through the mountains and spends his free time chasing down women and those oh-so-elusive pumas – his all-time hunting high. Until one day when he meets and promptly falls head-over-heels in love with the beautiful and free-spirited Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). They’re soon married – and Serena barely even bats an eye at Rachel (Ana Ularu) – his previous and now heavily pregnant conquest. A powerful woman, she gets involved with the running of George’s business – a horseback foreman to rival any man. And she even imports and trains an eagle to keep the snakes at bay. Accidents on the railroad are plentiful, and the town’s Sheriff (Toby Jones) has designs on protecting those lumbered forests with a newly formed National Park, eager to find the shady deals hidden in George’s bookkeeping that will bring him down. But as Serena falls pregnant and as George’s trusted accountant Buchanan (David Dencik) betrays him, it’s time for George to set things right.
As the eponymous heroine, Jennifer Lawrence gives a fine performance – portraying both the ivory-white goddess in tailored chiffons and bobbed hair, but also Serena’s dark past, haunted by a family tragedy. (Things she lost in the fire.) And there are moments of modern equality – unusual for the period – George making a partner of his wife and putting her brains and leadership to work. But for a film about a strong woman, Susanne Bier’s Serena is a bit of a muddle. She’s associated with both the eagle and the puma – a kind of taloned wild spirit with her claws grasped firmly round her man. And as the woman with a psychological disturbance becomes unhinged, veering between femme fatale and Lady Macbeth, all hopes of a credible strong female role model go out of the roughly hewn window.
In much the same way, the script – based on Ron Rash’s New York Times bestselling novel – plunges headlong into occult melodrama as huntsman Galloway, played by an almost unrecognisable Rhys Ifans, pledges his life to Serena – the woman that saved his life and the one that appeared in his mother’s visions. It turns out that even to turn against her husband, Serena needs a man by her side. And as George and Serena descend into murder and betrayal, they no longer inhabit a universe of logic and reason, but rather a microcosm of seething emotions, sparked by the pain of miscarriage, whipped into murderous rage and wrapped, rather awkwardly, in jealousy and psychic mysticism. Crazy, thy name is woman.
While not any more subtly written – he deforests national parks, shoots near-extinct big cats and fiddles the books – there is nevertheless something mysterious about George’s character. Yes, he’s a fool for a pretty dress and a daddy-come-lately, but he’s also trapped in the metaphor that bookends the film – a hunter killed by his intended victim. A symbol of immoral gain and macho conquest avenged by womankind, like something from Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Perhaps Susanne Bier’s greatest coup in Serena is to turn the aesthetics of right and wrong on its head – casting Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the butter-wouldn’t-melt leads, catching us off-guard as the manly hunter-capitalist and the soft-focus heroine take on the forces of law, order and decency hidden behind snippish pedantry and turncoat weakness. But with a misogynistic and histrionic potboiler of a plot, Serena is sadly all gorgeous fur coat and no goddam knickers.
Serena is released on 24th October 2014 in the UK