Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
Bradley Cooper (Silver Lingings Playbook)
Toby Jones (The Hunger Games)
Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man)
Sean Harris (Prometheus)
Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones)
This interesting, flawed film was completed more than two years ago, then shelved while its distributors wondered what to do with it. Despite offering what is arguably Jennifer Lawrence’s most ambitious and grownup performance so far.Its director is Susanne Bier, the Danish film-maker responsible for the challenging drama In a Better World, and who also gained a commercial track record with English-language movies such as Love is All You Need and Things We Lost in the Fire. Bier is an interesting person to take charge of this big emotional spectacle, set in depression-era America in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. It is clotted with its own atmosphere of tragic gloom and erotic doom.Cooper plays George Pemberton, a young entrepreneur with an irresponsible, romantic streak, who owns a logging business in the forest. His business is precarious and unsafe – the employees are always getting injured or killed – but there is so much unemployment that he can always find willing replacements from the dirt-poor menfolk. His loyal business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik) tries to keep the financial plates spinning by raising a bank loan secured against Pemberton’s highly speculative ownership of forest land in Brazil. Meanwhile, the sheriff (Toby Jones) resents their destructive swagger and wants to save the forests for a federally protected national park. At this knife-edge moment, Pemberton falls passionately in love with Serena (Lawrence), a staggeringly beautiful and proud woman from a poor background. Impulsively, he proposes marriage, and after their honeymoon the couple return to their tough frontier kingdom in feudal triumph, George announces to his cowed workers that his headstrong, imperious bride Serena must be treated as his equal and they must take orders from her as willingly as from him. It all leads to disaster.Lawrence brings her A-game. She is passionate, impetuous and confident, with a tough determination to grab the brass ring that has been presented to her. I loved her insistence that the company must bring in an eagle to keep down the population of venomous snakes, which are endangering the workforce, and that only she can be allowed to train the eagle. It is a gloriously queenly, almost Tudor moment for Lawrence, who has a glimmer of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabethan hauteur. Serena had surrendered eagerly, almost ecstatically, to the socio-erotic excitement of getting a marriage proposal from a handsome, wealthy man, and then she dominates him sensually in their married life, spurring him to greater achievements, and inspiring ruthlessness against those who get in his way.I wonder if Bier has brought a distinctively European, non-Hollywood manner to some of this. There is a scene in which Serena gets uncharacteristically sloppy drunk at a grand dinner and deliberately excites and annoys her husband by dancing with another man. This is followed by angry, jealous, complicated marital sex. There is a gamey flavour here: it doesn’t quite fit into the star brand identity Lawrence has cultivated, and this might account for the film’s relatively low profile. Then there’s the fact that her character is unsympathetic, which is still considered a mortal sin by many film producers of movies and book publishers.