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Sable Clouds Playbook

Larry D. Horricks/Studiocanal

Serena (2014)

Susanne Bier's odd, mournful, memorable "Serena" looks like a western, sounds like a costume drama and behaves like a Greek tragedy; a potent combination to which the word uncommercial might also apply. Its central couple — would-be timber magnate George (Bradley Cooper) and new bride Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) — are involved in reshaping 1930s North Carolina and fending off a growing conservation movement, while doom rolls unstoppably toward them like a storm front. Not for nothing is "Serena" scripted by Christopher Kyle, author of two films for Kathryn Bigelow and one for Oliver Stone: large passions brew, big gestures abound — most items in both columns involving Ms. Lawrence.

Central Europe stands in for Depression-era Carolinas, making "Cold Mountain" the obvious comparison — although Anthony Minghella's film isn't as fatalistic as Ms. Bier's, and certainly not as melodramatic. Freed from its usual contemporary middle-class setting where past results have been mixed, Ms. Bier's belief that everyone seethes with suppressed discomfort receives a kick in the pants and lands somewhere that's more cinematic and more overcooked. The transplant is pretty drastic, maybe a bit unwise; but hard to look away from. Judging by the briefest glimpse of Bier-regular Kim Bodnia — untroubled by any dialogue at all — the cutting room floor may be the only place to find out how the procedure really went.

The casting makes some adjustments to the course of Ron Rash's novel, with Rhys Ifans as a taciturn golum of a backwoodsman landing closer to the source than either Mr. Cooper or Ms. Lawrence. But the film opts not to modify the downbeat conclusions, or the feeling of human beings falling to bits while tampering with nature. All of which add up to a divisive, old-fashioned star vehicle, in which two ugly characters endure the torments of the damned and the two actors playing them suffer gorgeously. The plot involves Serena's training of an eagle, leading to shots of Ms. Lawrence in fine 1930s activewear, backed by vast brooding forests, with a raptor on her arm. Ms. Bier gives the image its due, recognizing Christmas when it arrives.


Opens on Oct. 24 in Britain and on March 27, 2015 in the United States

Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Christopher Kyle, based on the book by Ron Rash; director of photography, Morton Soborg; music by Johan Soderqvist; production design by Richard Bridgland; costumes by Signe Sejlund; produced by Nick Wechsler, Ms. Bier, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Ron Halpern and Ben Cosgrove; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Magnolia Pictures (United States). Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Bradley Cooper (George Pemberton), Jennifer Lawrence (Serena), Rhys Ifans (Galloway), Toby Jones (Sheriff McDowell), David Dencik (Buchanan), Sean Harris (Campbell) and Ana Ularu (Rachel).


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