“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 two previous 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.

Favorite Films Set in the 1810s and 1820s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1810s and 1820s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1810s AND 1820s

1 - Sense and Sensibility

1. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters in love and financial straits. Adapted by Emma Thompson, the movie starred both her and Kate Winslet.

 

 

2 - Persuasion 1995

2. “Persuasion” (1995) – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel about the reunion between two former lovers. Roger Michell directed. – Tie

 

 

2 - Persuasion 2007

2. “Persuasion” (2007) – I am also a big fan of this equally entertaining adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel about the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Adrian Shergold directed. – Tie

 

 

3 - Vanity Fair 2004

3. “Vanity Fair” (2004) – I rather enjoyed this surprisingly first-rate adaptation of William Thackery Makepeace’s 1848 novel about the rise, fall and rise of an ambitious early 19th century Englishwoman. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie starred Reese Witherspoon.

 

 

4 - The Deceivers

4. “The Deceivers” (1988) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this exciting adaptation of John Masters’ 1952 novel about a British Army officer’s discovery of the Thugee cult. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie co-starred Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Michell.

 

 

5 - The Journey of August King

5. “The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this first-rate adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer, who unexpectedly finds himself helping a young slave escape from her master.

 

 

6 - Northanger Abbey

6. “Northanger Abbey” (2007) – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild starred in this delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel about a young girl’s misadventures during a visit to the resort town of Bath and at a family’s mysterious estate. Jon Jones directed.

 

 

7 - Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

7. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen starred in this superior sequel to the first Davy Crockett television movie about the adventures of the frontiersman and his friend George Russel along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

 

 

8 - Emma 1997

8. “Emma” (1996-97) – Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong starred in this solid adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about the matchmaking efforts of a wealthy young woman in early 19th century England. The movie was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.

 

 

9 - Brother Future

9. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this entertaining historical/science-fiction movie about a Detroit teen who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself a slave in 1822 Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the movie co-starred Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

 

 

10 - Hawaii

10. “Hawaii” (1966) – George Roy Hill directed this energetic adaptation of James A. Michener’s 1959 novel about the experiences of a missionary couple from New England in the early 19th century Hawaiian Islands. Julie Andrews, Max Von Sydow and Richard Harris starred.

“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair. 

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed“VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that“VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” (2007) Review

“ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” (2007) Review

Nine years after the release of 1998’s “ELIZABETH”, director Shekhar Kapur returned to direct a sequel called, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE”. Like the 1998 movie, it stars Cate Blanchett as England’s “Virgin Queen” and Geoffrey Rush as the sovereign’s most trusted spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. The movie covers a period during Elizabeth I’s reign in which she had faced the double threat of Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). The movie also features a romantic triangle for Elizabeth that features Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh, famous poet and explorer (and the Queen’s object of desire) and Abbie Cornish as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waitng and Raleigh’s future wife, Bess Throckmorton. 

Despite having the same director and star as the previous film, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” seems like a different kettle of fish from its predecessor. Michael Hirst and new writer, William Nicholson’s screenplay seem more somber and less violent than the 1998 film. The most graphic violence shown in the movie is actually heard as Mary Stuart’s neck is severed by a sword (or axe). And its sensuality almost seem subdued in compared to the earlier film. The most titillating scene seemed to be Cate Blanchett’s backside after she disrobes in one scene.

The movie covers a period in Elizabethan history that has been featured many times in the past – namely Elizabeth Tudor’s decision to execute Mary Stuart for plotting treason. It also covers the consequences of this act – namely Spain’s decision to send an armada to England. Although I found this mildly interesting, I wish that one day in the future, some filmaker would focus upon a period in Elizabeth’s reign that did not cover her early years as queen, Mary Stuart’s death or the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, these incidents seem to define her reign in history. Perhaps that is why I found the story’s main conflict anti-climatic. At least the royal triangle between Elizabeth, Raleigh and Throckmorton managed to provide some spark in the story . . . even if this actually played out in the early 1590s, instead of the 1580s as shown in the film.

The performances are basically first-rate – especially by Rush, Owen and Cornish. Although I must confess that I found Owen’s presence in the movie to be almost irrevelant. Aside from participating in the defense of England against Spain, he had no serious role in the movie’s main story – namely Elizabeth’s conflict with Mary and Philip.

I really do not know what to make of Jordi Mollà’s portrayal of Philip II. I guess I found it rather odd. I think he had tried to portray the Spanish sovereign as someone more eccentric than he actually was. And quite frankly, screenwriters Hirst and Nicholson did not serve him well by dumping some rather pedantic dialogue upon him that seemed focused around insulting Elizabeth’s character. I do not know what he had called English queen more – ‘whore’‘bastard’ or simply ‘darkness’. Quite frankly, he had made a much better villain in “BAD BOYS II”.

As for Blanchett, I really enjoyed her performance in the movie’s first half. She seemed more self-assured, mature and perhaps manipulative than she was in the 1998 movie. Yet, once when affairs of both the state and the heart began to sour for her, she engaged in more over-the-top mannerisms than Bette Davis did during her entire 17 years at Warner Brothers. Before one starts thinking that I was more impressed by Blanchett’s performance in “ELIZABETH”, let me assure you that I was not. If anything, her twitchiness in the movie’s second half only reminded me of the same mannerisms that I almost found annoying in the first movie. Yet . . . she still managed to turn in an excellent performance.

Like its 1998 predecessor, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” is not perfect. It lacks the previous movie’s colorful panache, despite the lavish costumes and sets. In fact, those very traits nearly threaten to overwhelm both the story and its characters. Thankfully, Kapur manages to prevent this from actually happening. And although it is historically incorrect, at least it is not marred by an unforgivable revision of history as was the case with the Elizabeth/Dudley storyline in the first film. Despite its imperfections, I suggest you go see “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE”. Especially if you enjoy lavish costumes in a historical setting.