LFF REVIEW: Serena

Serena-2014

A movie is a tangled mass of hundreds of variables. Even those that seem like a sure bet- acclaimed source material, tried-and-tested pairing of A-list actors, Oscar-winning director- can end up being an utter disappointment. In the curious case of Serena, a film riddled with problems, signs of trouble arose when it appeared that no distributor was willing to touch it. Production on Serena finished in 2012; yet it limped along for nearly two years, unseen, before finally clawing its way into the London Film Festival. This is what sparked my curiosity- how could a period drama, once tipped for awards-season success, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper- not be snapped up right away? What could have gone so horribly wrong?

The interesting thing to note with Serena is that it’s not a complete disaster- it has its problems, sure, but I still found it to be, at least for some of that bloated runtime, an engaging romantic drama. Lawrence’s titular performance, while not her best work, is still convincing, if slightly patchy. It is Cooper who turns in wooden, uncharacteristically lazy work. The pair still have the chemistry that worked so well in Silver Linings Playlist, but some of that sharpness has been lost along the way.

It is hard to like, or even pity, any of the characters we meet in Serena’s depression-era logging camp. Serena herself is complex, outspoken, charismatic- your typical Jennifer Lawrence character reincarnated into the early 1930s. She is an orphan, after losing her entire family in a terrible accident. She is cool, with her bleached tresses and icy gaze, and Cooper’s George Pemberton tells her that he wants to marry her on their first meeting. This film tries so hard to make Serena intriguing that ultimately the audience loses all interest, or in the case of the audience at LFF, burst into laughter. That’s right, some moments in Serena are so unintentionally ridiculous that the audience, on several occasions, couldn’t help but laugh.

The film’s frequent use of ham-fisted metaphors is another problem to attribute to the script. Serena is likened to a white horse, then an eagle. Then a wildcat. Serena exhausts itself by trying to be profound when all it really needed was to find a rhythm. The editing and the script are disjointed, rushed in places, stretched out in others. Serena is a film that cannot decide what it wants to be. In parts, I felt truly gripped by Serena. Lawrence was at least partially captivating, and the plot, although a slow burn, was periodically thrilling. Here lies Serena’s fatal problem- with so many promising variables, it is not enough to be only periodically thrilling, and frequently exasperating. Serena is as inconsistent as they come.

Only Lovers Left Alive – Review

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Only Lovers Left Alive is the latest feature by Jim Jarmusch, focusing on the relationship between two vampires, playfully named Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. It is a refreshing take on the vampire genre, omitting the usual tropes of high-speed battles and superhero strength in favour of a quieter, simpler look at a centuries-old relationship between two vampires.

The film is beautifully shot, with a wonderfully moody soundtrack. The action takes place entirely at night, and is set in Detroit and Tangier, where Adam and Eve are living separately. The reclusive Adam chooses to make the desolate landscape of Detroit his home, where he avoids any human contact. Adam’s disdain for humans is evident- he mockingly refers to them as “zombies”. The film balances out Adam’s solemn musings, which sometimes border on angsty clichés, with an unexpectedly dry sense of humour, largely thanks to the comic timing of its leads. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as a vampire- Eve is cool and aloof, an optimistic balance to Adam’s gloom and pessimism. Much of the film focuses on the constancy of Adam and Eve’s relationship throughout the centuries, or indeed, millennia. They are two old souls who are at once more forward-thinking than most humans, and also relics of the past. Adam is a rock musician, yet he wears a dressing gown which predates the industrial revolution.

The couple’s reunion is interrupted by Eve’s rebellious and destructive younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who quickly disregards Adam and Eve’s hopes for a quiet life. John Hurt is also fantastic as a vampiric Christopher Marlowe, a 14th Century poet and father figure to Eve. Only Lovers Left Alive is stylish, understated and character-driven. It omits many of the aspects of the vampire genre which have become so tiresome in recent years, instead choosing to focus on what is perhaps its most interesting aspect- the promise of eternity.

★ ★ ★ ★ 

12 Years A Slave – Review

 

I will admit that my expectations for 12 Years a Slave were sky-high. Upon its premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in September it was proclaimed to be “the new Schindler’s List”, and in the months leading up to its UK release the reviews have grown increasingly hyperbolic. 12 Years A Slave, along with Gravity, was probably the most-hyped film of the year. And with good reason- it’s the third collaboration between director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. The pair’s previous collaborations- 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame- were lauded by critics. So, in short, I was excited. 12 Years A Slave managed, somehow, to raise the bar which McQueen had already set so high. McQueen has made a name for himself by tackling difficult subject matter- 12 Years A Slave is no exception. It’s a difficult watch to say the least, but McQueen looks at slavery with an unflinching eye.

The story of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is an exceptional one. Northup, a free man, was abducted and sold into slavery, leaving his family with no knowledge of his whereabouts. McQueen’s achievement lies in his masterful presentation of slavery as a system in which everyone, even those who showed kindness to Northup, was complicit. This is a part of why 12 Years A Slave is so brilliant- it gives a real sense of the fear felt by Northup that he would never get his freedom. Of course, credit must be paid to the incredible performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor has proven himself to be an exceptional actor and his performance in this film is no exception. Ejiofor shines in the lead role, forcing us to feel every minute of Northup’s anguish. He is backed up by a stellar supporting cast- in particular Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano. Dano is at his most fascinating when in a completely loathesome role, and here he is at his most hateful. Fassbender is terrifying as the sadistic slaveowner Mr Epps, shown in complete contrast to Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-meaning yet ultimately cowardly Mr Ford. I hope to see Ejiofor and Fassbender rightly rewarded at this year’s Oscars.

12 Years A Slave has all the makings of a classic: a fantastic cast (I cannot praise them enough), masterful direction, beautiful cinematography and a captivating story- all this comes together to create an experience which is sure to stay with the viewer for years to come.