January to March is typically a wasteland for good movies but here’s one that might not be a complete waste, because it features two of our biggest stars and best actors. SERENA is based on the novel by Ron Rash, and features Best Actress Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in the title role and Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper. This is a melodramatic romance set in the moody smoky mountains of depression-era North Carolina. Cooper as Pemberton, is building a timber empire on the backs of poverty stricken lumberjacks in dangerous working conditions while fighting environmentalists for the land. Suddenly everything is catalyzed when Lawrence as Serena, daughter of a lumberman, comes riding ’round the mountain, a stunner on horseback, trailing blond locks and a tragic past.
It’s instant, animal attraction and all at once, the two are in bed, married, running the business as full partners, and igniting jealousy in Pemberton’s right hand man Buchanan (David Dencik). This is the spark that lights the fire which threatens to burn this smokin’ relationship– and everything around it– to the ground. Loyalties are tested, wounded psyches fester, and destiny plays its hand in the shape of an eery foreman named Galloway (Rhys Ifans). Ana Ularu as Rachel, an earthy beauty, is a haunting specter of a promise broken.
The film winds up as quickly as it takes off, awkwardly rushing to piece together its themes and plot, fulfilling every foreshadowing, leaving no symbol unturned– including a poor lone panther caught in its cross hairs. I suspect the clunky screenplay is among the reasons this project was shuttled from a fall pre-Oscar opening to its appearance this muddy spring. It’s not the subtlest effort, and places maximum strain on its leads, Lawrence occasionally overacting–but I still couldn’t take my eyes off her–or them. We’ve seen Cooper and Lawrence brilliantly coupled before, in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and separately in AMERICAN HUSTLE; they’re interesting actors alone, but together (here they are equally flawed and driven) they click to each other’s rhythms, have the same emotional temperature, and invest us in the outcome.
Award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier and cinematographer Morten Soborg make the most of this landscape, giving us images of sorrowful and insinuating beauty–mist curling around trees about to be toppled, candlelit interiors barely warm against the murk closing in; we feel the cold damp clinging to the lovers, the terrain a paradise lost to unredeemed sins. SERENA is certainly a mixed bag, but has enough in it to keep me interested, and another chance to see these two actors at work. NOW PLAYING at the Landmark Theatres Kendall Square in Cambridge!