Danish director Susanne Bier is behind the camera and she’s certainly earned her right to marshal a big Hollywood production with credits that include the original Brothers (remade with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire) and her 2002 Dogme film Open Hearts. She usually handles high emotion with a light touch, and does so once again here (for the most part) against the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
Mist gets in the eyes of George Pemberton (Cooper), the founder of a successful timber company who is experiencing a few financial hiccups during the Great Depression. The woman of the title (Lawrence, as Serena) instantly captures his heart and also offers him sage advice on how to run the business, immediately setting herself apart from the usual society ladies. She is a spirited gal yet there’s an air of melancholy, too, stemming from a tragedy in childhood that wiped out her family.
Lawrence conjures all of that darkness and light with a finely tuned instinct. If there is an obvious villain of the piece, it is Pemberton’s business partner (David Dencik) whose rancour at being bumped down in the hierarchy (with Pemberton favouring Serena) begins driving a wedge between the hot and heavy lovers. Fire is a recurring motif and this twosome have plenty – Bier’s camera lens all but steams up – but there is no controlling it. Jealousy rears its head in other ways, when a baby is born in town to a woman George admits to sleeping with before Serena entered his life.
Consequences of past actions drive the plot forward, testing the bond between them, but it’s a slow burn and it sometimes threatens to sputter out. Cooper brings the necessary dynamism, like a powerful wind that whips around Serena, making her stronger and weaker, inspiring fateful actions on her part. The way their energies merge, to isolate them in an increasingly hostile environment, makes for an absorbing watch, but in the latter stages, the shading of their characters becomes a little too indelicate. Particularly in Serena’s case, a kind of hysteria takes over and there are misogynistic undertones. George gets off easy in comparison.
When the writers start to cut corners like this, all the poetic flourishes – like George’s tussle with a wild cat (guess who that’s supposed to represent) – do not lend gravitas as much as drag the story down. Bier is digging hard for something deep and yet, at the point when you should be reaching for the hankie, it’s only because of so much sweaty desperation. There’s no danger this story will melt your heart. Rather, it is a tantalising, morbidly fascinating study of two hotheads in orbit around each other, headed for nuclear fusion.