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See Jennifer Lawrence play the sultry dame in a film that harks back to the Golden Age of cinema.
By Sarah Ward
December 01, 2014
By Sarah Ward
December 01, 2014

Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and a panther circle around a film, and each other. Who will come out alive? That’s the crux of Serena, a romantic melodrama tantalisingly bleak, though too beholden to its too-obvious symbolism. It strives for the emotional complexity of times and films long since passed, but can only offer a shaky — albeit pretty — approximation.

Starting in North Carolina’s golden-hued Smoky Mountains in 1929, a wilful woman and a wild cat enter the life of a Depression-era logger; of course, for all their sleek allure, they’re both omens of worsening times. She is the titular Serena, determined to become involved in a waning timber empire beyond the bounds normally expected of her gender. He is George Pemberton, in love not only with his new wife but with making as much money from his woodland as he can. The feline threatens their livelihood, but no more so than their own vices.

Adapting Ron Rash’s 2008 novel of the same name, Serena charts the troubles and tragedies that spring in their wake: feuds, premonitions, medical emergencies and illegitimate children among them. Tangled up in the drama are a jealous business partner (David Dencik), interfering sheriff (Toby Jones), single mother (Ana Ularu), and loyal enforcer (Rhys Ifans). If that sounds over the top and outlandish, that’s because it is. A host of problems and people test the lovers’ fates well into the realm of contrivance and convenience.

Serena aims to hark back to features of the Golden Age, where spirited femmes headlined tales of moral corruption as fully realised figures. Here, as the catalyst for drama, the central sultry dame is only ever painted as brash or unhinged. As a love interest, she is only ever idolised or maligned. Starkly absent is the nuance needed to render the film a throwback in anything more than superficial terms — and the insistence upon linking Serena’s untamed nature with the creature stalking through the trees certainly doesn’t help matters.

With 2010 foreign-language Oscar winner In a Better World among her output, director Susanne Bier is no stranger to heightened circumstances and the quandaries that arise as a result, though her pedigree amounts for little. A clumsy script proves her undoing, alongside an approach favouring slow reveals at the expense of tension. Plot machinations aplenty aren’t the same as a genuinely involving narrative.

Reunited after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, both Lawrence and Cooper are effective, suffering as they are from the same over-stretched material.  Too often, they are reduced to smouldering separately or sliding through a series of sex scenes, always looking the part but never really fitting in.

Alas, that’s the attractively shot and staged Serena from start to finish, lumbering along and constantly felling any source of interest. As everything builds towards the inevitable finale, audiences will strain to care just who lasts the length of the feature’s running time.

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