Serena Shows How Gorgeous a Misfire Can Be
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2015 26 Mar
DVD Release Date: June 9, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: March 27, 2015 (wide; also on VOD)
Rating: R (for some violence and sexuality)
Run Time: 109 min.
Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik
Have you heard about the new movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence? No? How's that even possible given Cooper's recent Best Actor nomination for American Sniper and the duo's acting nominations last year for another movie in which they co-starred, American Hustle? And don't forget Silver Linings Playbook from 2012, which scored Oscar nominations for both actors, and in Lawrence's case, an Oscar win.
But here comes Serena, completed in 2012 and only now rolling out to theaters after also launching on Video On Demand. The long-delayed film from director Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire) sat on the shelf until such a time as now, when the studio could capitalize on the actors' higher profiles.
So, what will audiences find after being lured to the film by the presence of two high-wattage stars working with an acclaimed director best known for her work in Europe? (Bier's In a Better World won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011).
The answer: a very mixed bag. Serena is, for its first hour, a stately if somewhat problematic drama with shortcomings that are more than compensated for by the film's gorgeous scenery and stellar cinematography. But its story, based on a 2008 novel by Ron Rash and adapted by Christopher Kyle (Alexander), sees its characters transform in ways that must have played out much better in the novel than they do in the film, where the changes are more disorienting than surprising. Once that transformation begins, the film never recovers.
George Pemberton (Cooper) is a timber baron in 1920s North Carolina. Working with his partner and right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), their operation clears forests and provides steady work for several men, even though their livelihood is threatened by the efforts of others to turn much of the forest into a national park.
The first time George sets his eyes on Serena (Lawrence), he's smitten. After a brief introduction, George proposes to Serena, and the two marry. But Serena is interested in being more than a life partner for George. She has a strong business sense and does, as Buchanan fears, aspire to be a partner in George and Buchanan’s business.
Not easily intimidated, Serena stalks the work site, correcting the men on their tree-chopping technique and intimidating the men into respecting her. Or, in the case of Galloway (Rhys Ifans), Serena earns his devotion by tending to his wounds. That devotion will prove useful once Serena's ambitions take a darker turn.
The motivation for the couple's union is key to the success or failure of Serena, and the film uses repeated scenes of George and Serena being intimate to illustrate the level of passion in their union (the movie is rated R partly for these scenes, which, despite a lack of nudity, leave little to the imagination). However, while the two stars are attractive and charismatic, the chemistry between them never sparks the way it needs to in order to carry the film.
The narrative pivots on a failed pregnancy for Serena as well as revelations about George's and Serena's pasts—the kind of things that might have been learned by the couple during a more traditional courtship had they not become engaged right away—that interact with each other in ways that force the story forward in ways that feel far from organic.
With those problems, could there be any reason to see Serena? Yes, if film visuals are at least as important to you as plot. Film is, after all, a visual medium, and cinematographer Morten Soborg has given the story the most visually arresting treatment it could receive. Czech Republic locations stand in for North Carolina, while dim interior shots have a richness that’s never murky, making for a film that is never less than gorgeous. It’s more than enough to compensate for the story's problems—until late plot developments derail the movie. However, don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking first about the film's breathtaking vistas and other strong visual moments before Serena’s story shortcomings are brought to mind.
Serena must have seemed like a sure thing on paper, with award-caliber stars and an acclaimed director. The movie doesn't pan out, but even so, it's the best-looking bomb of the year.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple f-words; numerous uses of foul language
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of drinking; smoking
- Sex/Nudity: Numerous scenes of sex between a husband and wife, with no nudity but kissing, caressing and sex under the covers shown from different angles; implication that Buchanan is gay; bathing scenes have no nudity other than display of a scar on a woman’s back, but in one bath scene a woman is aroused by her husband
- Violence/Crime: A railroad worker is pinned to the tracks and nearly run over by a runaway train car; man is shot; a woman’s bloody corpse; a man’s hand is severed; a woman miscarries; a panther is hunted; a violent animal attack; a man’s throat is slit off camera, but we hear gurgling noises; a woman is strangled nearly to death; a cabin burns
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: The main characters fall in love instantly, and the man proposes to the woman during their first conversation; strong suggestion of an out-of-wedlock relationship that led to pregnancy, without this ever being explicitly stated; a character is said to have the “gift of vision”; a man believes a character is the fulfillment of his mother’s prophecy; a national-park advocate tells locals that “what God has created”—the forest—shouldn’t be sacrificed for a quick profit; a politician is bribed; a woman says her child’s name is Jacob, “from the Bible”