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Serena: Chemistry fizzles between Cooper and Lawrence

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence once again share the screen in Serena, a retro-romantic period noir.

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2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Christopher Kyle
Directed by
Susanne Bier
Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris

From the instant the mountain-stripping lumber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) claps eyes on Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), he's a goner. We don't wonder why. Appearing so straight and steady on horseback she might be a marble statue in motion, Serena is a vision of God's country perfection: Not even her honey-golden hair seems touched by the wind. Galloping at speed to catch up with her, he barely has a chance to catch his breath before he proposes. She accepts, and all hell prepares to break loose in Depression-era North Carolina.

Back at the lumber camp, Serena quickly establishes herself by sinking an axe in the exact spot to cause a stubbornly sturdy tree to properly fall. The gathering of grizzled lumberjacks fall back, awed. "That should clear," Serena announces, strutting off-screen and straight into her husband's business.

A formidable capitalist as well as a tree-toppling beauty, Serena begins meddling in her smitten husband's questionable accounting practices, prompting the considerable resentment of his conspicuously devoted partner (David Dencik) before other events gather to reveal in the woman a dangerous instability and a predisposition for toppling more than trees. Get in her way, and down you'll go.

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The situation, tragic and stormily fateful, will be familiar to anyone versed in wide-screen Hollywood outdoor romantic tragedies of the late 1940s and early fifties. If you squeeze your eyes tightly enough, Serena might drain its colour to evoke a black-and-white Robert Ryan/Barbara Stanwyck vehicle directed by King Vidor or Raoul Walsh. But open them again and you're still watching Serena, one of those movies that proves that the mere presence of all the right ingredients does not a happy meal make. It's all in the mixing.

Danish director Susanne Bier (Brothers, Things We Lost in the Fire) has proved herself a deft hand with barbed domestic melodramatics, but, in this case, she seems lost in the North Carolina-dressed Czech Republic's thick mountain mists. (Shot by Morton Soborg, the film is as ravishing as its title character.) A film that should be shamelessly soaked in passion and thrusting erotic delirium is instead posed and prettified, to the point where "camp" comes to mean more than the place where lumberjacks work – it's also the movie's defining vibe.

We could forgive the otherwise preposterous premise – generously unhelped by a creaky hunting metaphor, Rhys Ifan's hoodoo-prone grizzly man, and behavioural shifts so sudden they seem to be delivered by Western Union – if the primary attraction between George and Serena stoked the movie's engine. In that case, we'd follow it anywhere. But it doesn't, and before you can say "Timber!" Serena is off track and sputtering in the muck.

Filmed two years ago (between Lawrence and Cooper's bell-ringing collaborations in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle), the delay of this movie is mysterious given that its stars may only be more bankable together than they already are apart. How could you lose with a retro-romantic period noir about a love so toxic it clear cuts the Carolina hills?

The answer, it seems, is simply to stand back and hope chemistry will do its own work. But even nitro and glycerine won't go boom unless they're properly mixed. For Serena to have succeeded, and to have lived up to the promise of a modern-day classic Hollywood throwback, it needed to get so deeply inside the madness of the attraction between Serena and George that nothing else would matter. It needed to go as deeply inside their love as that axe plunged into that tree. Instead, it observes everything from the outside, leaving us as perplexed as everybody else in the camp.

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