A femme fatale story with a twist

A femme fatale story with a twist

Serena (October 24, 2014)

The last time Jennifer Lawrence played Bradley Cooper’s love interest (in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook) sparks flew and so did the award gongs, with Lawrence landing the Academy Award for best actress at only 22.

Serena is unlikely to win any awards, but if you like a twist on those Hollywood Films Noirs with a gravelly-voice femme fatale, you may enjoy Serena. 

The period just after the Great Depression is a little early for a Film Noir, and a rural logging community in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains looks more like the film set of the Twilight series, or Lawrence’s Hunger Games, than that of Double Indemnity or Laura.

But this is a femme fatale story with a twist, because Serena (Lawrence) does not seduce George Pemberton (Cooper) in order to murder her husband and take off with the money.

George makes the first move after spotting Serena in a society horse exhibition where, for all the applause, she is jumping surprisingly low fences – and without a helmet.

Pemberton has been warned by his sister that Serena is reputed to be psychologically scarred by a tragic incident – a house fire – in her childhood. All that is forgotten, however, when, after a whirlwind romance and honeymoon, the Pembertons return to the logging company George started with his partner Buchanan (David Denicik).

Serena, whose father was, coincidentally, the head of a famous logging empire, has inherited his guts, knowledge, self-confidence and tough skin.  She shows a workman how to fell a tree more efficiently and criticises Buchanan’s management when she learns that the workforce is being depleted due to snake bites. Serena imports an eagle that quickly puts an end to the snake problem.

While Serena and George are blissfully living beyond George’s overstretched bank credit, it does not take long for the cracks in their idyllic marriage to appear. Buchanan, who has a secret crush on George, resents Serena taking over his job.

The local sheriff (Toby Jones) is spearheading a petition to turn the Pemberton’s prosperous logging area into a protected national park.  And George has failed to tell his jealous wife that he inadvertently fathered a child with a pretty, local girl named Rachel (Ana Ularu).

The tension mounts when Serena saves the life of Galloway (Rhys Ifan), George’s unbalanced, Rasputin-like hunting guide. Galloway believes that he is now Serena’s servant and protector. This declaration might be comforting, but it’s a vocation that he takes far more seriously than even Serena intended.

The unlikely director of Serena is Danish Director Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire), whose contrived, though worthy, A Better World won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

In the first half of the film Bier builds the tension between the characters gradually, so that Serena’s actions and feelings are psychologically consistent and credible, and George’s naivety is as well.

Cinematographer Morten Soborg, and production designer Richard Bridgland help turn the Czech Republic into a humid, atmospheric North Carolina circa 1929 where the sun struggles to be felt.

Adapted from Ron Rash’s novel, Writer Christopher Kyle’s (K-19: The Widowmaker, The Weight of Water), script does not make it easy on Bier in the second half of the film, however, where the increasingly convoluted plot turns into Grand Guignol.

Pemberton’s accountant (Sean Harris) is clearly asking for trouble when he turns whistler blower, but Bier and Kyle turn a slow-burning tale of a dangerous romance into something akin to Cabin in the Woods without the humour or metaphor.   Meanwhile, several threads are abandoned, including the topical theme of environmentalism vs jobs for the locals.

But the real problem is that with any variation on a femme fatale theme, the audience has to be rooting for the waylaid lover. George, at his best, deserves Serena and his rather predictable fate.

In addition to several other character flaws, he’s a hypocrite. George is happy to cut down the beautiful trees in the Smoky Mountains to finance his dream to escape to the unspoilt virgin forests of Brazil.

by Joyce Glasser, MT film reviewer