When it takes a director 18 months to finish a film, whispers of reshoots and tortured editing will inevitably begin to surface. In the case of Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier's Depression-era drama which wrapped in 2012, those fears proved to be unfounded. Bier, it seems, was simply being precise.
An adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena feels less mainstream than its stellar names might otherwise indicate, its high-passioned frontier tumult at once coldly savage and, ultimately, wildly hot tempered. In her English language debut, Bier's construction is a tense, beautifully realised meditation on power and ambition.
Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, a charismatic Bostonian and the head of a budding timber empire. From his lumber yard in North Carolina, he works the land alongside his men, sleeps with his cook and espouses solid free-market beliefs that clash with the environmentalist proselytising of Toby Jones’s bumptious sheriff.
As ever, Cooper is a terrific actor to behold, his matinee idol features almost adding to the shiftiness that he brings to each role. His budding magnate is not an especially likeable man but, in this capable A-list grip, Pemberton is layered rather than clichéd, neither especially villainous nor particularly noble. He has a conscience, no doubt, but his time in the wild breeds a sharp, and pivotal, sense of survival.
Occurring in the immediate wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the subsequent crisis is all but invisible in a landscape already scarred by poverty. Pemberton heads off to extend his bank loan in the privileged north: his poor credit, badly affected by the downturn, forces him to offer up cherished virgin land in Brazil as collateral. This Yankee sojourn takes an upturn when he encounters the exquisite Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), the flinty offspring of hard-edged Colorado logging barons whose demons are all to obvious, even as the bewitched Pemberton makes her his wife.
The subsequent domesticated middle section of Bier’s story is occasionally fascinating. Shaw, steely and glamorous in equal measures, strides into position, an equal player in Pemberton’s enterprise capable of issuing instructions on chopping technique and taming a snake-killing eagle (while her husband continues to obsess over the elusive mountain lion he wishes to kill). Lawrence is every inch the omnipotent title character, bent on consolidating her own position in surroundings with which she is more than familiar. ‘I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint, Mr Buchanan,’ she says, ominously, to her husband’s jealous business partner.
There is much to gorge on in this meaty middle: love, lust, betrayal, death. Cooper and Lawrence — dazzling in Silver Linings Playbook, confident in American Hustle — loom over the narrative like mighty twin oaks. Bier finds much to work with in their mutually destructive chemistry, where besotted affection slowly gives way to suspicion.
In the foreground, unfortunately, that central alliance wields a frame-consuming dominance, leaving little room for much else, plot or cast. Conleth Hill’s rumpled Dixie doctor (likely fleeing the reach of a professional conduct investigation based on his clinical abilities) and Sean Harris, as a whispery, though unusually upstanding, foreman, are forced to feed on scraps. Jones, too, must make do, veering from preachy irritant to keen investigator under the yoke of an lukewarm subplot concerning the Pembertons’ involvement in corruption and murder.
In truth, such difficulties are to be expected when this is so clearly Lawrence’s show. A fixture in two big budget franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games), the actress’s reputation now matches her obvious talent. However, in her seminal breakthrough, Winter’s Bone, she was marooned in a hopeless Ozarkian wilderness and, fittingly, she excels once more in this distant back country, convincing as the hardy survivalist who happens to look like Jennifer Lawrence on a really good day.
Beyond that, her descent into jealousy-induced psychosis, the certainty of a fate once avoided, is sadly inevitable, though effectively accomplished. As she nurses her broken womb in a blanched hospital ward, there are few words to describe the silent torment fired directly into the camera. Later on, she watches Cooper charge off in the wake of an argument, shivering in her night clothes on a dirty street. The frantic wave of farewell that she directs at his back — hopeful, childlike — sits on the crazed end of a terribly fevered spectrum.
That standard fails to sustain and it is a pity then that the dark kinship developed with taciturn woodsman Galloway (an incredibly sinister Rhys Ifans) should support the picture’s weakest element. Dominating the final third, and choppy in its conception, her sudden fixation on the fate of Pemberton’s illegitimate son feels forced, horribly out of step with the otherwise smouldering atmosphere.
At her grim conclusion, Bier’s true success, perhaps, is in conjuring an ambience as palpable as the leads’ steamy dynamic. The gritty action is mostly hemmed in by the isolation of its rural valley base, with only torrid passions for company, and in the Czech Republic’s stunning landscapes (doubling for North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains) the director appears intoxicated.
This mist-shrouded hinterland holds the subtle whiff of felled trees and wet mud, while cinematographer Morten Søborg soaks up the colours of Camp Pemberton: deep, damp greens and drab browns. Johan Söderqvist’s score, too, touches a nerve, its desolate Southern soundscapes dripping with menace, ripe with heartache. It peppers Bier’s sometimes flawed vision, evoking few hopes that everything will be alright in the end.
An edited version of this article was first published here.