Salvation, Damnation and Education. So reads the plaque resting atop the chapel door of George Pemberton’s (Bradley Cooper) depression era timber town. Set in the mountains of North Carolina, perhaps logging, not dogging should be the alliterative adornment for Serena.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence in the titular role, the film is Lawrence’s first release since suffering the ill-fated effects of the “sex crime” which left her horribly exposed last month. The now infamous ‘nudie pics’ were a despicable, perverted injustice that once more revealed the murky depths to which online anonymity can plunge mankind. It seems as though we have thrust a hand into the calm waters of human decency, searching for the chain and pulled the plug, draining the positive potentialities of the online world, leaving a quagmire of scum to block the pipes. In the absence of a reliable iCloud to back us up, perhaps we should seek a good old-fashioned plumber to right these wrongs. The release of the photos had a two way blowback. Not only did they reiterate the immorality of the hacker, sitting prettily as we all do behind the screens, but the very existence of the photos exposed another sad reality. Not to sound all anachronistically, monocle-sporting Victorian here, but the broad acceptance of the photos themselves held up a fascinating mirror to society. ‘Sure, it’s what the youths do nowadays’ seemed to be the standard response to the exposé of the photos that had been exchanged between Lawrence and her then boyfriend. Is this really the nadir to which social media and infinite-G, 86 macro-pixel gadgetry, have sunk relationships?
Fortunately, these modern musings are not the realm of Serena, which deals in the more traditional amorous arts of golden eagle taming and panther hunting. Barring some overly zealous smooching scenes, Lawrence remains decent throughout to the disappointment of a horny minority of paying punters (You there! Put that away). The only hacking on display is of the tree variety as the actress is blasted out of the technological revolution and back into a North Carolina world that is more pre-industrial revolution. Here she finds her wood (no, this is not a porno) in the logging trade and the typical guise of power partner Bradley Cooper. The two are a staple Hollywood couple now, following the Academy Award winning Silver Linings Playbook and 2013´s American Hustle; Lawrence even recruited Cooper for his role as George Pemberton if rumours are to be believed.
Playing the blame game this would exonerate director Susanne Bier or casting chief Jina Jay from the almost existentially poor selection of Bradley Cooper as protagonist Pemberton. It might just be a simple Hangover from the American Hustle but Cooper is incredibly unbelievable in the role and not in a good way. His bourgeoisie looks are more bureaucratic bad boy than man of the hills. In a film littered with accidental moments of humour, perhaps the finest is Cooper´s Pemberton racing after a loose locomotive as it careers towards the skull of a fallen labourer left trapped on the tracks. He looks more like a commuter catching the 19:30 out of London or New York than a rural landowner of 1930s America. In short, donning a suave silken pink shirt beneath layers of leather, Cooper just does not hack it chopping wood in the forests of North Carolina. Pemberton meets his end in the genuinely hilarious climax of a panther pyrrhic victory that manages to combine the two fatal flaws of the film. While casting Cooper was an error, Bier’s realisation of author Ron Rash’s animalistic imagery leaves the film feeling more like a child’s picture book than a forceful art form.
While Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) ghosts around on glorious white horses, tames eagles and generally represents some sort of female gypsy incarnation of Noah; Pemberton wastes time stalking panthers and shooting his partner, Buchanan (David Dencik) while out bear hunting. The portrayal is black and white in its childish simplicity. As sexually ambiguous, platonic partner, Buchanan, David Dencik heads up an elegantly composed supporting cast that almost rescue the film from failure. Danish director Bier explains the presence of the duplicitously slimy Dencik (Toby Esterhase in 2011’s Tinker Tailor) and the extravagant excess of roping in The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia for a gawping, silent role as a one scene extra (still, it’s nice to see him). The transatlantic theme continues. Toby Jones is faultless in his performance as Sheriff McDowell. However, his casting as a Sheriff is wholly inappropriate; his power brokering and jockeying with Bradley Cooper is more Monty Python than mountain panther because of their bizarre pairing in such an unlikely context. As for the faces that fit the Anglo-Welsh contingent of The Borgias’ Sean Harris (Campbell) and one-handed, throat slitting, Super Furry Animal, Rhys Ifans, the hairy and scary ex-con, Galloway, are the highlights.
For a film that not even Hollywood heroine Jennifer Lawrence can save, Ifans helps swing Serena back from the childish to the churlish. His snarling homicidal, baby-hunting maniac is genuinely unhinged and helps to provide some fright to keep your Halloween alight, but Serena smoulders and simmers, but never sparks.