In her native Denmark, director Susanne Bier makes intimate, emotional and even allegorical dramas such as After the Wedding and In a Better World.
In Hollywood, she’s a little lost, shoehorned into flat melodramas such as Things We Lost in the Fire and her latest, Serena, a period piece that offered most of those involved a chance to try something new on the screen.
Bradley Cooper plays a Depression-era timber baron racing to clear cut the mountains before the Feds turn the land into the Smoky Mountains National Park. He’s not subtle about his rapaciousness. By the time that park is announced, he declares, “There won’t be a tree standing.”
He’s almost as cavalier about his rural workforce. Pemberton Lumber is an accident-prone enterprise. His loyal aide, Buchanan (David Dencik) may forgive, his mysterious, superstitious hunting guide (Rhys Ifans, creepy) may understand. But the man’s mania for milking this land for all that it’s worth so that he can then head to Brazil where he can wipe out the rain forest is myopic.
Then Serena, a Westerner who grew up in timber wealth, crosses his field of view. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, she is a flinty, forest-wise woman who knows how to ride a horse and whose marriage will be more a partnership than a life of leisure.
“I can assure you, Mr. Buchanan, I didn’t come to the Carolinas to do needlepoint.”
She solves their rattlesnake bite problem (a tamed eagle, sent off to hunt them) and shares Pemberton’s life and business and bed.
But he earlier impregnated a hill woman, which complicates things. His accounting is suspect and there are bribes floating around to keep the Park Service at bay. Toby Jones plays the mistrusting local sheriff.
There’s just a hint of Appalachia today in the exteriors — the dead trees that pepper the slopes now, but not then. Much of this was shot in the Czech Republic, where a rough-hewn, newly-cut timber town is realized.
Cooper and Lawrence get to do things on horseback, swing an axe like they’ve done it before and play intimate scenes that they’ve never had the chance to show off on screen. They don’t create much heat. Neither has to do an accent here, only Ifans has to play a real man of the mountains.
But there’s not much to this, between the bloody lumbering and hunting “accidents,” no urgency or passion to the story or the performing of it.
Bier takes on this “mysterious world” as just that, but her alien’s eye-view offers no insights. And whatever Ron Rash’s novel had to offer, Bier has rendered it into something soapy, with everything compelling about it washed out.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones.
Director: Susanne Bier.
Screenwriter: Christopher Kyle. Based on the novel by Ron Rash.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Violence, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema.