You know when you see a film and you can’t stop thinking about it? Danish director Susanne Bier’s latest offering is just that. Serena stood out to me before I had seen it, as Bier is one of my favourite international directors, having loved her 2002 Danish drama Open Hearts. Serena seemed an interesting project for Bier to take up, after original director Darren Aronofsky left the production.
I have been surprised at the negative reaction towards Serena which I have encountered, with the editing receiving particularly sustained criticism. Bier is a well known adherent of the Dogma 95 manifesto, especially in her early films. Created by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, this avant-garde style of filmmaking focuses on realism, using hand-held cameras, natural lighting and no supplementary special effects in post-production.
Although Serena isn’t strictly a Dogma 95 film, it has certain elements of this style in use, notably in the occasional use of a hand held cameras. This is where the apparent editing issues arise, as certain scenes jump around quickly or are very brief. However, rather than hindering the film, this allows it to flow at ease without affecting the storytelling.
Serena tells the story of a small community in 1930s North Carolina, where George Pemberton runs a timber company. After George marries Serena Shaw, she immediately displays how business minded she is. Not just coming to North Carolina to be a housewife, Serena’s control over the business begins to affect the relationship with their workers, as well as her relationship with her husband. At the same time, George is facing a dilemma from a relationship prior to his marriage, which threatens to unravel George and Serena’s seemingly perfect life.
Based on the book of the same name by Ron Rash, Serena stars Bradley Cooper as George Pemberton, and Jennifer Lawrence as his confident wife Serena, the movie’s femme fatale. Having previously appeared alongside in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, playing lovers in the former, the chemistry between the two leads is immediately apparent, and as the characters are married within the first 10 minutes of the film, very helpfully expeditious.
The script has many layers to it, allowing the drama to build throughout the film, so you are never sure of anyone’s real motives or what is going to happen next. After the headstrong Serena arrives as George’s wife, and is told to be treated as his equal, everything begins to fall apart. The characters are passionate and intense, which is topped off by the excellent Cooper and Lawrence. This keeps up a level of tension throughout the film, leaving the viewer guessing on how the relationship with unfold.
Visually, Serena is similar in style to Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. In the same way that you don’t know how the story will progress or what actions a character will take, this has the same effect. With the focus mostly on Serena, how she acts with her husband, with their workers, and her behaviour upon learning her husband’s secret is presented in a melodramatic fashion; a passionate woman whose bitterness threatens to unravel everything.
The impressive supporting cast is comprised mostly of British and Danish actors, including David Dencik, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris and Ana Ularu, who all manage to touch the relationship between George and Serena, either for bad or good. Bier, in her own words, has an excellent ‘bullshit detector’, claiming that she can see when an actor isn’t being genuine in front of the camera. This ruthless approach keeps the already great cast on top form, adding to the realism that the film already evokes and showcasing the talent on offer.
Although having two American leads, the majority of the supporting cast are Danish or English, as are the majority of the crew. This gives the film a great European feel to it, away from the glamorisation and formality of Hollywood. There is more realism amongst the actions, with a gritty narrative and dialogue that almost seems improvised at times, aided by the faint traces of the Dogma 95 style of filming. Cooper and Lawrence fit into this realm at great ease. They are American actors in a European film, not the other way around.
Filmed in the Czech Republic, the settings are beautiful. Morten Søborg, the cinematographer, should be praised for his work in making the land on which the timber empire is built upon look visually stunning, whilst the characters surrounded by it are emotionally crumbling.
The attraction of Lawrence and Cooper in another film together will certainly draw an audience to Serena, which is not a deterrent, as Lawrence especially has a stand out performance in perhaps one of her most fierce, adult roles to date. Serena works on many levels, as all aspects of the production seemingly click together, and overall has intensity only found in the most intriguing of stories.
Serena will be released on DVD on 23rd February 2015.