London Film Festival review: Serena (2014)

Directed by Susanne Bier.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ana Ularu and Sean Harris.



Newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton plan to start a timber empire in North Carolina in the late 1920s. Powerful and unrelenting, Serena earns the fear and respect of the working men in her husband’s command. Yet their unstoppable hurricane of a love faces a storm when Serena attempts to convince George to eliminate everyone who stands in their way—including George’s illegitimate son, Jacob.


Filmed in 2012 in the forests of the Czech Republic, Serena is an epic story of love and loss, framed by beautiful tall trees and fog set in the US of the late 1920s. George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper, American Hustle) is a privileged man who uses his family’s fortune to build a timber empire. He’s a man’s man through and through, macho and strong and into masculine things like hunting, cigars, and physical labour. On a visit to see his sister Agatha (Charity Wakefield), he spots a beautiful woman riding a horse – Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games), a troubled and damaged woman with a love for trees that stems from her childhood as a timber mogul’s daughter.

The two marry almost at once, following what is surely meant to be a montage of their sweeping love affair—though it comes off hastily put together both in writing and editing—and then move straight to South Carolina, where Pemberton has set up a timber business he has big plans for with his right hand man Buchanan (David Dencik), who may have a more personal agenda for his involvement with Pemberton. Upon arrival, Serena wins the hearts of all men on the camp with her knowledge and expertise on the harsh and dangerous world of timber; everyone but Buchanan’s, who sees her as a threat to his existing relationship with her husband.

Deciding to fend for himself, Buchanan sides with the town’s sheriff, McDowell (Toby Jones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who is after Pemberton’s head for more reasons than one. His attempt is thwarted by Serena’s intuition, however, and this begins a dangerous game of chess for the Pembertons where the eliminated pieces are quite literally put out of commission for good. A local hunter and former convict, Galloway (Rhys Ifans, Elementary), becomes embroiled in this game when Serena befriends him and later saves his life from a work accident. With his undying loyalty at hand, Serena uses him to eliminate more pieces she thinks are in the way of the Pembertons’ happiness, like Campbell (Sean Harris, The Borgias), the next man to try to turn her husband in.

Yet the work-related conflicts aren’t all that turns sour for Pemberton, as his previous involvement with Rachel (Ana Ularu, The Borgias) has led to the birth of a boy, Jacob, for whom Pemberton begins to care about despite his wife’s insistence that he stay away. Serena is confident that she has her husband well locked in to her charms, however when a pregnancy goes wrong she begins to fear that he will leave her in favour of Rachel and her perfectly healthy baby boy. This puts a noose around their marriage, and despite how much they love and care for each other, or how perfectly matched they are, Serena and George finally clash when the matter of the boy’s fate becomes one of life and death.

Beautifully shot and exquisitely scored, Serena is a bit of an interesting conundrum. While based on the novel by Ron Rash, the adaptation has seen the story morph from one thing into quite another, with a very visible shift some fifteen minutes before the end of the film. Until then, the story and characters are gripping, engaging, and utterly compelling. Then chaos descends—and character motives seem to blur in favour of sweeping melodrama which crescendos in a final confrontation scene and a rapid and tragic denouement that lacks any sort of point.

It turns out that this was the biggest change made during the adaptation process, and the biggest shift away from the original novel. Rather than focus the story on the Pembertons’ romance, as the intent was, the result is a glaring gap in consistency, and an ending that fizzles out instead of going out with a bang. Wiki-search the book and read on the original ending: a much preferred, more consistent, and more poignant ending than the dramatic chase sequences and random-seeming conclusion of Serena’s breakdown.

Nevertheless, praises must be sung on the beautiful direction by Susanne Bier, the leading and supporting casts’ performances—perhaps the best in Bradley Cooper’s career to date, as he finally gets a chance to stop screaming and imbue his performance with nuance and depth of character, a fantastic appearance of Rhys Ifans as Galloway, a mysterious and dangerous man with a rather superstitious side, and Jennifer Lawrence’s consistently fantastic acting as Serena—as well as a majestic score by Let The Right One In’s Johan Soderqvist, which captures the grandeur of the Smokey Mountains and the intimacy of Serena and George’s love affair in a perfectly stricken balance.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★  / Movie ★ ★ ★

Bonus star awarded to Soderqvist’s score.

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