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“Serena” burns bright… and fizzles

Even a remarkable collection of talent, both in front of and behind the camera, can fall far short of delivering an outstanding film. Serena is no exception. It’s not a terrible film per say, but despite strong individual performances and an interesting story, it underwhelms.

The film is based on Ron Rash’s 2008 novel of the same name, about the young, fiercely independent and passionate, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), who marries timber magnate, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) in 1930s North Carolina. They are a true power couple: both of them beautiful and ambitious.

George views Serena as more than just a wife – he tells his employees and investors that she is in fact a business partner (much to the chagrin of his best friend and current partner, Buchanan). Serena is indeed the equal of any logger. Having grown up on a Native American ranch, she’s able to wield an axe in impressive fashion, implement an innovative way to stop deadly rattlesnakes, and manage operations at her husband’s growing empire.

But while George has a thriving business, the Great Depression and a threat by environmentalists to turn the last virgin forests in the United States into national parks, means he finds himself over-leveraged. Hands are greased but the pressure mounts. Egged on by his wife, George resorts to violence to keep them and their business out of trouble.

It’s only when a past romantic entanglement threatens Serena’s cutthroat determination to succeed, both as a businesswoman and as a wife, that the couple’s vision for themselves and their future begins to unravel.

Lawrence brilliantly captures Serena’s dual vulnerability and ruthlessness. The Oscar-winner’s performance is magnetic and delivered with flourish, and it’s worth watching the film just for that. The erotic, fiery relationship between Serena and George is tense, with Lawrence and Cooper already having proven their on-screen chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook (they also starred together in American Hustle). Add beautiful Gatsby-esque costumes and an impressive setting, and this movie should have been a winner. Yet, it’s not.

The film is directed by the supremely talented Danish filmmaker, Susanne Bier, who made 2011’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner, In A Better World. Bier makes Serena burn bright, but add a longish running time (1h49m) and a plot that is messy at times, and Serena fizzles out into gloomy melodrama.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans

Director: Susanne Bier

Rating: 3 out of 5

SA release date: 29 May 2015.

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