“SERENA” (2014) Review

(This review features spoilers of the 2014 movie, “SERENA” and the Ron Rash 2008 novel from which it is adapted. If you have not seen the movie or read the novel, I suggest you do not read this review.)

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

Seven years ago, author Ron Rash wrote a novel about a young socialite’s effect upon the lives of her new husband, their North Carolina timber business and the Appalachian community that relied upon it during the early years of the Great Depression. The cinematic adaptation of Rash’s novel hung around development for a while, before it finally became the 2014 movie, “SERENA”.

“SERENA” begins during the late fall of 1929, when the New England-born timber tycoon, George Pemberton, is forced to travel to Boston and secure more funds for his lumber business in western North Carolina. While attending a horse show with his sister, George meets Serena, the daughter of a businessman who had owned his own lumber business in Colorado. After a quick romance, the newlyweds return to Waynesville, North Carolina. There, Serena and George clash with the latter’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who regards the young bride as an interloper in his relationship with George. Serena also discovers that George had conceived a child with a local servant girl named Rachel Hermann. Although George reassures Serena that the infant boy means nothing to him, she discovers otherwise after she suffers a miscarriage. Deadly antics follow as the Pembertons deal with legal threats and grow apart over George’s illegitimate child.

When “SERENA” first reached the U.S. movie theaters, it sunk at the box office amidst negative reviews from the critics and fans of Rash’s novel. I have never read the novel. But I have read its synopsis after seeing the movie. And I have also read the reviews. There seemed to be a mixed reaction to the novel, despite its success. But the reaction to the novel seemed a lot more positive than the reaction to the film. Many have criticized director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle’s changes from the novel. Serena’s point-of-view was reduced in the film. Bier and Kyle added a background in the timber business for the leading character. They removed an early scene featuring a clash between George and Rachel Hermann’s father Abe (Harmon in the novel). They removed the Greek chorus of loggers and changed the ending. And you know what today’s moviegoers and television viewers are like. If a movie or series is going to adapt a novel, these fans usually insist or demand no changes. This is a very unrealistic or dangerous attitude for any filmmaker or television producer to have. To produce a film or a television movie, series or miniseries takes a great deal of money. And a producer needs to consider so much – especially in creating an adaptation of a literary source.

There were some changes made by Bier and Kyle that did not bother me. I felt more than relieved that they had decided to drop that violent encounter between George Pemberton and Abe Hermann (Harmon) at the Waynesville train station. While reading about it, I felt that such a violent encounter happened too soon in the story and it struck me – personally – as ridiculously over-the-top. Perhaps other fans missed it. I did not. According to some criticism of Rash’s novel, the Selena Pemberton character came off as a one-note monster with no real depth. Some have lobbied the same charge at George Pemberton. Since I have never read the novel, I do not know whether they are right or wrong. But I am grateful that the movie did portray both characters with some emotional depth. This was apparent in the couple’s intense regard for one another and the emotional breakdown that occurred, following Serena’s miscarriage. I also have no problems with Kyle’s decision to add a background in lumber in Serena’s back story. I thought her familiarity with a lumber camp gave credence to her ability to help George deal with the problems that sprang up within his camp. On the other hand, both Bier and Kyle managed to find time to focus on the Pembertons’ willingness to exploit the natural beauty around them for business and George’s penchant for hunting panthers. I also found the clash between the Pembertons’ efforts to maintain their business in the Appalachian Mountains and the local sheriff’s desire to preserve the surrounding forests for a national park rather interesting. I had no idea that the clash between those who wanted to exploit the land and those who wanted to preserve it stretched back that far.

I was surprised to learn that had been filmed in the Czech Republic and Denmark. However, looking into the background of the film’s crew and cast members, I found this not surprising. With the exception of a few, most of them proved to be Europeans. I have no idea which Czech mountain range where “SERENA” was filmed, but I have to give kudos to cinematographer Morten Søborg for his rich and beautiful photography of the country. But thanks to Martin Kurel’s art direction, Graeme Purdy’s set decorations and Richard Bridgland’s production designs did an admirable job of transporting audiences back to early Depression-era western North Carolina. As for the movie’s costume designs, I thought Signe Sejlund did a top-notch job. Not only did she managed to re-create the fashions of that period (1929 to the early 1930s), she also took care to match the clothes according to the characters’ personality, class and profession.

I never read any of the reviews for “SERENA”, so I have no idea how other critics felt about the cast’s performances. When I first learned about the movie, many bloggers and journalists seemed amazed that Jennifer Lawrence would be cast in the role of the emotional and ruthless Serena Pemberton. Personally, I was not that amazed by the news. The actress has portrayed ruthless characters before and she certainly had no problems portraying Serena. I thought she did a top-notch job in capturing both the character’s ruthlessness and the intense emotions that the latter harbored for her husband. There is one scene that truly demonstrated Lawrence’s talent as an actress. And it occurred when Serena discovered that George had been secretly keeping an eye on his illegitimate son. I was impressed by how Lawrence took the character from surprise to a sense of betrayal and finally to sheer anger within seconds. Bradley Cooper, who had co-starred with Lawrence in three other films, portrayed Serena’s ruthless, yet passionate husband, George Pemberton. Cooper not only conveyed his character’s businesslike ruthlessness, but also the latter’s moral conflict over some of his actions. My only complaint is that I found his New England accent (his character is from Boston) slightly exaggerated.

“SERENA” featured solid performances from the supporting cast. Toby Jones did a good job in portraying the morally righteous sheriff, McDowell. Ana Ularu also gave a solid and warm performance as Rachel Hermann, the young woman with whom George had conceived a child, when he used her as a bed warmer. Sean Harris was very effective as the conniving Pemberton employee, Campbell. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Charity Wakefield, and Blake Ritson. But the best performances amongst the supporting cast came from David Dencik and Rhys Ifans. Dencik gave a surprisingly subtle performance as George’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who resented his partner’s marriage to Serena and her increasing impact on their lumber business. In fact, Dencik’s performance was so subtle, it left me wondering whether or not his character was secretly infatuated with George. Equally subtle was Rhys Ifans, who portrayed Pemberton employee-turned-Serena’s henchman, Galloway. Ifans did an excellent job in infusing both Galloway’s emotional ties to Serena and ruthless willingness to commit murder on her behalf.

Contrary to what many may believe, “SERENA” has its share of virtues. But it also has its share of flaws. One aspect of “SERENA” that I had a problem with surprisingly turned out to be the cast. Mind you, the cast featured first-rate actors. But I was not that impressed by the supporting cast’s Southern accents that ranged from mediocre to terrible. I could blame the film makers for relying upon European (especially British performers). But this could have easily happened with a cast of American actors. Only two actors had decent (if not perfect) upper South accents – Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris. I have no idea how Bruce Davidson, one of the few Americans in the cast, dealt with an Appalachian accent. He barely had any lines. Another problem I had with the movie turned out to be the score written by Johan Soderovist. First of all, it seemed unsuited for the movie’s Appalachian setting. Worst, Susanne Bier and the film’s producer failed to utilize the score throughout most of the film. There were too many moments in the film where there seemed to be no score to support the narrative.

At one point of the film, Kyle’s screenplay seemed to throw logic out of the window. When George committed murder to prevent Sheriff McDowell and the Federal authorities from learning about his bribes, a Pemberton employee named Campbell who had witnessed the crime, blackmailed him for a promotion. Yet, later in the film, Campbell decided to tell McDowell about the murder and the bribes. The problem is that Kyle’s screenplay never explained why Campbell had this change of heart. It never revealed why he had decided to bite the hand that fed him. And I have to agree with those who complained that the film did not focus upon Serena’s point-of-view enough. The movie’s title is “SERENA”. Yet, most of the film – especially in the first half – seemed to be focused upon George’s point-of-view. I have no idea why Bier and Kyle made these changes, but I feel that it nearly undermined the film’s narrative.

My biggest gripe with “SERENA” proved to be the ending. If I must be honest, I hated it. I also thought that it undermined the Serena Pemberton character, transforming her into a weeping ninny who could not live without her husband. Kyle’s screenplay should have adhered a lot closer to Rash’s novel. I am aware that both Serena and George loved each other very much. But Serena struck me as the type of woman who would have reacted with anger against George’s lies about his illegitimate baby, his emotional withdrawal and his attempt to strangle her. She reminded me of a younger, Depression-era version of the Victoria Grayson character from ABC’s “REVENGE”. Both women are both very passionate, yet ruthless at the same time. And if the television character was willing to resort to murder or any other kind of chicanery in retaliation to being betrayed, I believe that Serena was capable of the same, as well. Rash allowed Serena to react more violently against George for his betrayal, before sending her off to Brazil in order to start a lumber empire. Yet, both Rash and Kyle seemed determined to kill off Serena. Kyle did it by having Serena commit suicide by fire, after George was killed by a panther. I found this pathetic. Rash did it in his novel by having a mysterious stranger who bore a strong resemblance to George to kill her in Brazil. In other words, after surviving Serena’s poisoning attempt and an attack by a panther, George managed to hunt her down in thirty years or so and kill her. I found this ludicrous and frankly, rather stupid. I would have been happier if Serena had killed George and left the U.S. to make her fortune in Brazil. She struck me as the type who would get away with her crimes. If the murderer in“CHINATOWN” could get away with his crimes, why not Serena Pemberton? I feel this would have made a more interesting ending.

It is a pity that “SERENA” failed at the box office. Unlike many critics, I do not view it as total crap. I have seen worse films that succeeded at the box office. I suspect that many had simply overreacted to the film’s failure to live up to its original hype, considering the cast, the director and the novel upon which it was based. But it was not great. I regard “SERENA” as mediocre. The pity is that it could have been a lot better in the hands of a different director and screenwriter.

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“BREACH” (2007) Review

“BREACH” (2007) Review

I have noticed over the years that some of the most interesting spy thrillers tend to be based upon historic fact. And many of these fact-based movie usually centered on an individual’s betrayal of his or her country on a massive scale. Movie and television productions such as “5 FINGERS”, “FAMILY OF SPIES” and “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” are good examples. Another is the 2007 political thriller, which told the story of how FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen ended up being convicted of selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union and later, Russia.

Set between December 2000 and February 2001, “BREACH” began with young FBI employee, Eric O’Neill and two co-workers, engaged in the surveillance of a Muslim couple in Washington D.C. Eric is recalled from his post and assigned by Special Agent Kate Burroughs to work undercover as an assistant to Hanssen, who is allegedly suspected of being a sexual deviant. Despite Hanssen’s abrasive personality and rants against the Bureau for its lack of appreciation toward his computer skills, Eric begins to regard him as a friend and mentor. Hanssen and his wife has taken an interest in Eric and his marriage to a German immigrant named Juliana . . . who dislikes them. However, Burroughs eventually tells Eric the truth that Hanssen is suspected of spying for the Soviet Union and later, Russia for years. The Bureau needs hard evidence – from Eric – to put Hanssen away for good.

When I said that “BREACH” was an interesting spy film, I was not kidding. Frankly, I consider it to be one of my favorite in the genre outside the usual “JAMES BOND”, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” or “JASON BOURNE” movie franchises. I have nothing against these franchises. But . . . there are times when I do enjoy watching the occasional spy thriller that does not feature excessive violence, car chases and explosives. And “BREACH” happens to be one of those films. Instead of the occasional action sequences; the movie featured good acting, first-rate suspense and more importantly well-written drama. “BREACH” knocks it out of the ballpark with all three.

There are those who will probably dismiss the suspense aspect of the movie’s plot, considering that audiences know the outcome and Hanssen’s fate. But there is suspense. The story’s mystery centered on how Eric managed to help the F.B.I. find evidence to arrest and convict Hanssen. It also centered on Eric’s struggles to maintain his cover and deal with a perpetually arrogant and paranoid man. But what really made “BREACH” fascinating to me were the emotional consequences that Eric faced, while he played a cat-and-mouse game with Hanssen. The best example of this cat-and-mouse game was featured in a scene in which Eric was forced to delay Hanssen with a trip to a government photo session and obtain data from the latter’s Palm Pilot, while F.B.I. agents searched the latter’s car for evidence and plant listening devices. And even more interesting scene occurred later in the film, in which Hanssen becomes aware of the listening devices in his car and allows his paranoia to confront Eric . . . while wielding a pistol.

I found it even more interesting to watch how the case nearly played havoc with O’Neill’s marriage to Juliana, who became increasingly resentful over the Hanssens’ encroachment upon the younger couple’s marriage. More importantly, she becomes resentful toward the Hanssen’s intrusions into her and Eric’s religious beliefs. This tension is especially played out in a scene involving Robert and Bonnie Hanssen making a surprise visit to the O’Neills’ apartment and Juliana’s discovery of a video tape in Eric’s possession . . . one that features a sexual encounter between the Hanssens that was taped by them. Overall, the drama did an excellent job in conveying the tensions and emotional price that Eric faced, while helping his fellow agents take down Hanssen.

Where there any aspects of “BREACH” I did not like? Well . . . there are two, if I must be honest. One, I did not care for how the screenwriters handled the Rich Garces character, portrayed by Gary Cole. Honestly? It seemed as if the actor’s time was wasted in this film. And for a first-rate actor like Cole, I found that rather sad. One other aspect of “BREACH”that failed to impress me was Tak Fujimoto’s photography. I realize that the cinematographer is highly regarded in the Hollywood community. And I have admired his work in past movies. I did not care for his photography in this movie. I found it a bit too dark and metallic for my taste. Yes, “BREACH” set mainly set during the winter months of December, January and February. But guess what? I have encountered other movies set during the winter. And honestly, I found the photography for those movies a lot more attractive.

My feelings for the performances featured in this film is a completely different matter. Yes, I was a little disappointed that Gary Cole was underused. And the movie featured some solid performances that did not exactly dazzled me. But . . . despite being underused, I must admit that I found Cole rather entertaining as Special Agent Rich Garces, whose amused and laid back attitude toward Hanssen seemed to ruffle the latter’s feathers. Bruce Davison had a nice appearance as Eric’s father who gives the latter some wise advice. Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of Special Agent Dean Plesac also struck me as pretty solid. But in one particular scene that featured Hanssen’s arrest, I was impressed by how Haysbert expressed his character’s mild disgust and disbelief over the other man’s refusal to face the reality of what was going on. Kathleen Quinlan gave a very interesting performance as Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie. Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Hanssen knew about her husband’s espionage work, I must admit that Quinlan did an exceptional work in conveying a subtle perversity in her character’s personality that I found rather disturbing. It must have been somewhat difficult for Caroline Dhavernas to portray Juliana O’Neill. In the hands of a less skilled or less experienced actress, Juliana could have come off as a shrewish wife who seems incapable of understanding her husband’s profession. But Dhavernas managed to avoid that one-dimensional portrayal and expertly convey how much the Hanssens’ intrusions and Eric’s continuing privacy had put a strain on her psyche.

I cannot deny that I found Laura Linney’s portrayal of Kate Burrough, Eric’s F.B.I. handler, very interesting. And very complex. Linney’s Agent Burrough bridled with righteous anger at Hanssen’s betrayal of his country. Yet, she skillfully balanced that anger with a world-weary cynicism toward Eric’s initial naivety that I found fascinating to watch. There are times when I find myself wondering if Ryan Phillippe is underrated as an actor. Personally, I never have. And his performance as Eric O’Neill has only confirmed (at least in my mind) that he is a superb actor. Eric O’Neill might be one of the nicest characters he has ever portrayed. But thanks to Phillippe’s complex and intense performance, the character also proved to be interesting . . . especially in how he dealt with the stress of serving as Hanssen’s aide, while investing the latter; and how that stress put a strain on his marriage. Also, Phillippe is such a strong actor that it is obvious he had no problem whatsoever in keeping up with the more highly regarded Laura Linney and his main co-star, Chris Cooper. Speaking of the latter, I am still disappointed that he was never recognized for his portrayal of Robert Hanssen with a major acting award. He really deserved it. More importantly, I regard Robert Hanssen as one of his best roles. I thought Cooper was outstanding as the paranoid Hanssen, who seemed to be a curious mixture of the dedicated and morally pure Federal agent; and the perverse and paranoid man, whose ego led him to commit a major betrayal against his country. Cooper really knocked it out of the ballpark.

Overall, I would highly recommend “BREACH”. Is it historically accurate? Of course not. I have yet to see a historical drama that was. But “BREACH” is such a fascinating tale, thanks to Billy Ray’s direction; a tight screenplay written by him, Adam Mazer and William Rotko; and superb performances by a cast led by Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe that it was inspired me to visit my local library and read more on Robert Hanssen and what led to his capture.